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Dean Peceny - PAIS and Bond C

Bond C

Posted: October 25, 2016

Twenty seven million dollars for the new Physics & Astronomy and Interdisciplinary Science (PAÍS) building are included in Bond C on the November 8 ballot. When combined with resources from an institutional bond supported by student fees, we will be able to build a state-of-the-art research and education facility that will be the new home for the Department of Physics and Astronomy and a half dozen interdisciplinary science centers that will bring scholars from across campus (and the world) to do extraordinary scholarship.  Today, I want to focus on what we hope to accomplish through the collaboration of scholars associated with some of the interdisciplinary centers.

How will life on earth respond to ecological changes brought about by global warming? UNM possesses unique capabilities matched by few universities that will allow us to provide compelling contributions to this question.  The centers to be located in this new facility will bring social, natural, and physical scientists together in close collaboration to serve as a catalyst for amplifying UNM’s research on this critical question.

The Center for the Advancement of Spatial Informatics Research and Education (ASPIRE), led by Assistant Professor Chris Lippitt of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies will bring state-of the-art remote sensing capabilities and a data visualization center to PAÍS that will allow scholars to have real time visual information about changes in local environments.  This center adds new capacity to something that is a long-standing area of excellence for UNM, the careful mapping of changes in local environments and ecosystems over time, something best exemplified by UNM’s decades long study of the Long-Term Ecological Research Program at the Sevilleta National Wildlife refuge and its leadership in the network of long term ecological reserves throughout the US and abroad. 

The Center for Stable Isotopes (CSI), led by Distinguished Professor Zach Sharp of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Assistant Professor Seth Newsome of Biology, brings together one of the nation’s most comprehensive set of instruments for measuring stable isotope ratios of light elements-–carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur and chlorine-–in organic and inorganic substrates.  The study of stable isotopes provides a critically important tool for analyzing how contemporary species respond to environmental changes. When combined with the radiocarbon laboratory led by Professor Keith Prufer of Anthropology that will be a part of CSI in PAÍS, these tools can also help understand the evolution of species and of human civilizations over time as they have responded to changes in the environment.

We will create a new Center for Bioinformatics and Genomics in PAÍS, led by Jeremy Edwards, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, that will be an invaluable resource for tracing changes in species (including humans) over time at the genetic level.  The Center for Comparative Human and Primate Physiology (CHmPP Lab), led by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Melissa Emery Thompson, possesses the world’s largest collection of physiological samples of wild chimpanzees, which, when examined with the tools of other institutes located in PAÍS, can provide invaluable insights into how animals with complex social systems respond to environmental change.  The scope of possibilities will be expanded dramatically if we use these resources more systematically to examine the world class collections of the adjacent Museum of Southwest Biology, which has the nation’s largest frozen tissue sample collection of mammalian species.

UNM possesses extraordinary capabilities to connect careful examination of changes in local environments with the evolution of species in response to those changes.  Many of the interdisciplinary centers and institutes to be located in the new Physics & Astronomy and Interdisciplinary Science building are designed to catalyze and expand on these existing strengths by placing Anthropologists, Geographers, Biologists, Geologists, Chemists, and Physicists and their complementary tools and skills in close proximity to one another.

With this concentration of expertise, we believe UNM will be, for the first time, in a position to make a credible application to compete for a major National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center grant.  A center of this magnitude would provide opportunities to our faculty and students to catalyze cutting-edge research and connect UNM to our State partners and the world through advanced computing networks.  For example, we can conceive of large scale projects like the New Mexico Genome Project that highlight our diverse population in anthropological, health, and social scientific research. 

At UNM, we are perpetually faced with the challenge of reaching for the research excellence expected of any research one, flagship, university with more limited resources than those possessed by our peers.  This is a case where most of the resources required to make these advances in our research mission are already in place or will soon be in place.  The Regents approved the student fee increase needed to pay for the institutional bonds for this project after the extraordinary leaders of ASUNM, Jenna Hagengruber, and GPSA, Texana Martin, made this their top priority among all of the projects to be funded by the institutional bond during last year’s budget deliberations.  If the voters approve Bond C in two weeks, we should be able to move into this new facility in 2019. The perilous state of the state’s budget will make the next few years difficult for UNM, but because of projects like PAÍS, I still believe our long term future is bright.

Mark Peceny
Dean, College of Arts and Sciences

Related Link: Bond C would impact higher education across New Mexico

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