On July 1, 2015, Marie Lynn Miranda became Rice University’s Howard R. Hughes Provost, as well as a professor of statistics and of bioengineering. She is a widely recognized leader in the evolving field of geospatial health informatics and has studied, for example, how social and environmental stressors lead to health disparities. Prior to joining Rice, she was the Samuel A. Graham Dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, where she founded the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative, a research, education and outreach program committed to fostering environments where all people can prosper.
Soon after Miranda’s appointment, Rice announced $150 million in strategic research initiatives to improve Rice’s position as one of the nation’s preeminent research universities. Focus areas include molecular nanotechnology, data science, an enhanced postdoctoral program, a “research venture capital” fund, strengthened support for grant writing and management, and investments in training and informational technology.
We sat down with the provost to discuss how Rice is pursuing its mission — to conduct pathbreaking research that contributes to the betterment of the world and the inextricable link between research excellence and unsurpassed teaching.
What brought you to Rice University?
The opportunity at Rice felt quite special to me. Rice’s commitment to ensuring accessibility to people from all backgrounds was deeply appealing to me. I like working for mission-driven organizations, and the Rice mission resonates greatly for me. In addition, Rice is of a size where it is possible for a provost to know many, if not most, of the faculty and key staff personally, and so processes of institutional change and innovation can be inclusive and more widely embraced, which means it is a place where astounding things really can be accomplished. But perhaps most importantly, I love working for and with students, and Rice’s students are simply remarkable.
What appeals to you about being a provost?
As an individual faculty member, one’s job is to generate good ideas with collaborators and then try to advance those ideas, whether in the teaching, research or service realms. My job as provost is to gather ideas from the thousands of people in the Rice community and try to foster environments that advance as many of the best ideas as possible. This makes the work challenging, interesting, different almost every day and intensely rewarding. While I have continued my research program since becoming provost, I take much more pride in and enjoy much more excitement over the accomplishments of my fellow Rice community members, especially so with our students’ accomplishments.
Would you say your own values are a great fit?
Definitely. I grew up brown in a black neighborhood in Detroit and later did research almost exclusively in disadvantaged and minority communities. I have a profound appreciation for universities like Rice that not only build an inclusive environment through need-blind admissions and its residential college system, but that also have the ambition to engage with communities through dynamic research. The fact that I now have the privilege of serving as the next provost of Rice University bears witness to the transformative power of education. I want to be part of making that transformation possible for the next generation of students.
You mentioned residential colleges. How does Rice’s culture fit into your vision of research at Rice?
Even in the information age, with the ensuing democratization of knowledge, colleges and universities hold the greatest potential for helping students to bridge the chasm between knowledge and wisdom, and that is especially true in the residential college setting. In both the curriculum and the co-curriculum, we have the opportunity to help students explore how different cultural perspectives shape community dynamics, how poetry and art can help child refugees heal, how engineers and designers must come together to find solutions that will be embraced by the public, how teams of thinkers can do extraordinary things like discover buckminsterfullerene.
Rice recently announced its $150 million research strategy. Why should alumni and friends take notice?
All of our alumni and friends have a stake in Rice’s success. Our research productivity, along with our commitment to undergraduate education, have created a reputation for excellence. But the competitive landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade, challenging the entire Rice community to search for better ways to support our faculty’s work. Our alumni and friends were part of the goal-setting process as we consulted stakeholders and leaders in Houston and beyond, and they will continue to serve as some of our greatest experts, advocates, and supporters.
Why molecular nanotechnology?
To remain a world leader in any field, you have to keep asking, “How can we continue to push the boundaries?” That hunger for new discovery is what led to the discovery of buckminsterfullerene at Rice and to the creation of the first nanotechnology program. We must continue to invest in this area with the same sense of urgency, ultimately to strengthen our departments and reshape society through scientific innovation.
Speaking of scientific innovation, the National Science Foundation recently chose Rice for a major new nanotechnology program.
Yes, the Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Center is the first of its kind in Houston — and a perfect example of how our strengths catalyze opportunities. In this case, Rice is the centerpiece of a prestigious multi-institutional consortium dedicated to providing clean water and sustainable energy to millions in low-resource areas. Through the leadership of Professor Pedro Alvarez, we are already engineering novel technologies, including a new modular water-treatment system that uses solar energy and other nanoengineered materials to convert water from sources like ponds, seas and floods — and that’s only the beginning!
What about emerging strengths like data science? How can Rice establish its leadership?
Data science involves developing statistical and algorithmic methods, as well as the application of those methods to solve problems, and so it has a broad intellectual impact. Name a department and I can tell you a story about how data sciences can be helpful, from processing and interpreting digital humanities collections, to understanding voter turnout patterns, to improving cybersecurity. There is so much opportunity here, and we are engaging our faculty to determine the areas where we can stand apart and achieve dominance.
How do you use data science in your own work?
My own research uses geospatial data to explore relationships between the environment and child health. Geospatial analysis can help advance our understanding of which populations may be susceptible to social and environmental stressors and how to tailor interventions to the specific contexts in which people live. My research group applies data science approaches to the most intransigent health disparities.
What is another specific way Rice can enhance its competitive position?
I’ll give you three: supporting postdoctoral scholars, investing in high-risk, high-reward ventures, and improving our infrastructure to support interdisciplinary projects.
No stone unturned?
You’re not far off. It takes great people and great systems to run a multifaceted research program, especially at a top-tier school like Rice that is so idea-driven, adept at interdisciplinary collaborations and entrepreneurial in spirit.
How is Rice harnessing that entrepreneurial spirit?
Great entrepreneurs have a number of qualities, but certainly knowing when to strengthen your assets and when to take risks are among them. In Rice’s case, it means both. It means investing in our postdoctoral scholars, who are a critical but often overlooked piece of the research enterprise. A new, university-wide Postdoctoral Associates Program will enable us to recruit the best candidates who will bring new energy and ideas and make significant contributions. Secondly, research venture capital funding will spark truly innovative approaches by enabling our faculty to quickly learn whether a new idea is worthy of further study. Some ideas won’t make the cut, but those that do will provide a higher return on investment, whether that return is in the form of external funding or breakthrough ideas.
What can Rice alumni look forward over the next year or two?
Expect creativity and excellence — from our faculty and students. Scrolling through the numerous articles in Rice News will give you some indication of the creativity and energy that is already present at Rice and how we integrate excellence in research with excellence in teaching. As our research success increases, so will opportunities for students, as will our reputation and visibility. All of this will enhance our ability to attract new talent and resources.
There is just nothing like being part of an institution that can truly say it is benefitting humanity every day — providing clean water, enhancing stroke recovery, learning which early childhood interventions lead to educational attainment. Every day, I wake up knowing that extraordinary things are happening at Rice, and we have the potential to change the world. What a privilege this job is.