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After conducting a nationwide search, the Utah Board of Regents announced last month that Noelle Cockett will next take the helm of Utah State University as its 16th president. Cockett will succeed Stan Albrecht, a person whom I have had the great honor of working with these past five years and who has guided an unprecedented decade of growth as president.

Albrecht has consistently promoted research as an economic engine for the state, in the context of creating new discoveries, new jobs and a highly trained workforce. He leaves Utah State in a great state of momentum.

Setting a trend now of three years in a row, USU has achieved another record year of research support — over $240 million, up 4.7 percent in awards over last year's record. Among USU's 10 peer institutions designated by the board of trustees, only two others saw their research expenditures increase last year.

In fact, five of the past 10 years have seen record research funding at USU, an impressive feat during some of the most economically challenging times of the past century.

More than one-third of USU's revenues come from research funding, with almost three-quarters of that coming from competitive federal sponsors outside the state. This formula of using faculty productivity to bring in external funding is vital to continuing to offset our other revenue sources — state appropriations and student tuition.

Much of last year's new growth is thanks to USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory, which brought in nearly $100 million in contracts and grants. SDL's work is exemplified by its contributions to the NASA OSIRIS-Rex mission. SDL researchers designed, built and tested detector electronics assemblies for the NASA New Frontiers spacecraft, which launched this summer and will be the first U.S. mission to extract samples from an asteroid and return them to Earth — to Utah, in fact — for study.

Even more, we see a bright future that extends far beyond the next few years, as Utah State has a distinctively high concentration of promising young faculty researchers, as designated by the record numbers of new faculty who have been selected for National Science Foundation CAREER grants. The CAREER program is the NSF's most prestigious award for new faculty members, supporting the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. 

Five new faculty members were announced as CAREER grant recipients, joining 11 other USU researchers with active five-year CAREER grants. These researchers are studying quantum topology, improving engineering education, creating intelligent water supplies, and combating the sinister side of crowdsourcing.

One of USU's largest research grants last year is in conjunction with the national GEAR UP program. The $32.8 million grant will help more than 3,000 Utah middle schoolers catch the vision of higher education — and then make the dream come true.

GEAR UP's partners will provide services like academic tutoring and counseling, bring students on visits to corporate and college campuses and give them a chance to see what college life is like and envision themselves taking part.

These few projects are part of a vast portfolio of USU research that continues to affect the lives of Utahns. From family development education to earthquake research and spider silk production that is starting new business, research is generating critical solutions and providing significantly important research opportunities for graduate students and undergraduate researchers.

As a world-renowned researcher herself, Cockett has a long track record of engaging in and supporting projects of national import and prominence. She worked on the international team that sequenced the sheep genome, and she has developed and distributed resources used on a daily basis by sheep genomics researchers. She is a recipient of USU's highest research accolade, the D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award, and she is a two-time recipient of the Utah Governor's Medal for Science and Technology. Her firsthand experience positions her to continue the momentum of USU's research engine.

We are embarking on a new era of leadership at USU, and Cockett will continue to play a critical role of ensuring that USU research continues to support progress in the state as well as the nation.

Mark McLellan is vice president for research at Utah State University.

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