UM's research, location alluring

College Park chosen to be site of facilities

April 22, 2001|By Nora Koch | Nora Koch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the world's third-largest information technology company looked to expand its U.S. research operations to the East Coast, the usual high-profile and prestigious universities were in the running.

But the Japanese-owned Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. settled on a new university player in the high-tech research world. University of Maryland, College Park beat out three more celebrated contenders - Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University and Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University - as site of the Fujitsu facility, which opened April 1.

Just a few years ago, College Park likely would have been passed up as site of a major technology firm such as Fujitsu. But a recent emphasis on research and development - and the school's prime location, eight miles outside Washington - has helped to boost the University of Maryland's research stature.

The school's research partners include a blue-ribbon roster of federal agencies and institutions, including the National Security Agency, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the nearby Army and Naval research labs.

And its rise in the research and development world is reflected in the level of federal research funding, which has more than doubled in the past decade, said Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities.

"The University of Maryland has been on a very steep trajectory over the last decade," Hasselmo said.

The university's overall research funding totaled $257.6 million in 1999, according to the National Science Foundation, up from $166 million in 1990, giving Maryland a ranking of 32nd in the nation in university research money.

William W. Destler, vice president for research at the university, projects funding will total $300 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Federal research funding to the school grew even faster in recent years, totaling $145.1 million in 1999, up from $66.4 million in 1990, according to NSF.

Location is a major factor in that success, Hasselmo said. Major research universities from across the country have offices in Washington to keep abreast of research funding trends and to maintain personal contact with federal agencies, he said.

And the University of Maryland, with a total enrollment of 33,189 undergraduate and graduate students, is ideally situated to do that.

`Promising place'

Fujitsu's vice president of the U.S. branch, Kazuhiro Matsuo, said his company chose the College Park location because of the interaction the company will have with university researchers, as well as the concentration of research groups in the region.

"Washington, D.C., and College Park, is a promising place for leading technology," said Matsuo, who will run the College Park lab.

In March, the university formed a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy to build the Global Change Research Institute, where 25 scientists will study the scientific, social and economic effects of climate change.

In 1996, the university collaborated with the Food and Drug Administration to create the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, where researchers study food safety.

And the American Center for Physics, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Riggs Bank technology center are housed at the new University Park Station business park, two miles from campus.

"With so many of these organizations around ... there's tremendous opportunity for us," said Destler.

"Only in the past few years have we really been trying to take advantage of it. We're not leading the way here or anything like that. In fact, we're kind of catching up."

Destler is the first to hold that vice president position. Campus President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr., who in September 1998 was hired from a vice presidential post at the University of California, Berkeley - one of the nation's premier research institutions - elevated what formerly was the head of research and development to a vice presidential post.

Good for students

The thrust of new technology firms in the region, championed by the university, will help create business and further economic development, said Destler, a former dean of engineering at UMCP.

"It's a good thing for our students because if our students can get involved in research, even at the undergraduate level, then they can take advantage of all this activity," he said.

An example: Aerospace engineering students are designing a robotic spacecraft that will repair the space shuttle with fully mechanized "arms" and "legs," keeping astronauts inside the vessel. The project is funded by NASA Goddard, and is scheduled to travel to space with a NASA shuttle next year.

Researchers in the university's Center for Automation Research are working on video imaging technology that would allow cameras to follow a person in a crowded room, which could be used in security systems.

A computer science professor is working with DaimlerChrysler to build a computer that would allow smart cars to "see" pedestrians and read road signs.

And when Fujitsu opens shop, students will benefit from the firm's research into what's known as "pervasive computing," as the company works to create a personal network for individuals that would link cell phones, personal computers and home appliances.

Students, faculty and researchers from the partner institutions stand to gain from such arrangements, Destler said.

"And those marriages are best sustained if you're in close proximity to each other, so the proximity really does help," he said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the university - and ... for these other organizations - to work with the university."

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