UND Discovery: President Kelley, you bring a lot of experience to the table as an academician and an administrator. Tell us about your time spent in the laboratory as a researcher.
Kelley: My research career began as an undergraduate. This was my formative experience in becoming fascinated with biological questions. I was serving as a student assistant for a geneticist. He put me in charge of a fruit fly colony, and I learned how to maintain the colony and how to breed them to characterize their genetic traits. I became fascinated with crossbreeding and trying to understand what was going on in these complex organisms. They had so many different traits, such as eye colors; you could breed for or breed out some of these characteristics. That was my wonderful introduction into the field of biological research.
In many ways, that was central to my decision to go on to graduate school. I, like many students, had to make a decision: Do I want to go into a profession like medicine, or do I want to become a scientist? I chose to become a scientist. I went on to my graduate work and got interested in embryonic development. We start out as a single fertilized egg, that cell divides into two, four and so on. Gradually, you start seeing that the cells themselves are taking on different specialized characteristics. How do they do that? How do cells signal one another? Do they give each other permission to do what they are genetically organized to do? That’s where I’ve spent most of my laboratory experience, trying to understand this differentiation within cells.
UND Discovery: As you settle in here at UND, will you continue any kind of research while president, or hold a title that reserves that option to be a researcher on campus?
Kelley: I have a professorship in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology over at the (UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences) and my hope would be that I could, through that professional affiliation, at least keep my finger on the pulse of research going on at the medical school and across campus. I love going to seminars and listening to scientists talk about their work. I don’t think I am going to have time to maintain a laboratory myself. I have not been able to be at the bench for more than a decade because of administrative work. I still go to seminars, I still listen to scientists and I still like to ask questions, trying to advance my own understanding of these complex systems.
UND Discovery: Is that where you feel most at home?
Kelley: I’m not sure that I feel most at home there, but I feel very at home there. One of the things that excites me about a university is its diversity and its complexity, and the breadth that a university brings to our learning. I just love talking and listening to people. So, yes, I am very comfortable in a research lab, but I am also very comfortable talking with engineers, poets and musicians.
UND Discovery: How important is it for you to ensure that there is some sort of balance, as far as research focus, on the humanities and the hard sciences?
Kelley: It’s very important to maintain a balance of support. Nationally, because of security initiatives and other kinds of defense initiatives, we have a lot of financial support through the federal government for science and technology. We are aware of the big tickets. That doesn’t say that the creativity and the scholarship of a
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writer, a creative writer, is any less important in a scholarly university environment. I do think it’s my responsibility to ensure there are resources that can be used across the board for scholarship, regardless of whether it is for genomic research that requires massive amounts of instrumentation or for support that simply provides time for a person to create.
UND Discovery: What is your overall vision for research activity at UND under your leadership?
Kelley: Research and scholarship are, I will say, the principal responsibilities of our faculty, and those are things our faculty are very good at doing. They create an environment where students are brought in and given learning skills and taught new information, and then brought into the creativity and the innovative processes that bring new knowledge to the table. That is tremendously important in the University environment, and that is what I will promote as the major emphasis of my administration.
UND Discovery: The next vice president for research will be selected on your watch. What are some qualities that you want personified in that position?
Kelley: We will be defining the portfolio for the new vice president of research and economic development. I want to add “economic development” because I see leadership in research and economic development in a very broad way. There are the compliance, record keeping, accountability to funding agencies, and budgeting pieces that are required in the vice presidency. Perhaps more important is developing visionary leadership, not only for encouraging research but also for finding ways to turn that new knowledge into some marketable commodity — some commercial use. That could be anything from a book of creative writing, or a new novel, a new history of North Dakota, all the way over to the development of our new remote-sensing agricultural camera — AgCam — that has been placed on the International Space Station. Also, I think it’s very important for the individual who provides leadership as vice president for research and economic development to look for opportunities to partner with North Dakota State University through the Red River Valley Research Corridor, as we try to couple our expertise with others’ institutional expertise to bring new businesses to the area.
UND Discovery: Knowing that an exhaustive list would take up several pages, what are some things that most excite you about the UND research community?
Kelley: I’m very excited about the creative, innovative and entrepreneurial qualities we see at this university. We have the English Department working with others on new technologies in creative writing and how to turn new ideas into a form that people would want to buy for their own satisfaction and knowledge. On the technological side, I already mentioned the AgCam. It is just a remarkable achievement that brings together many technologies — computer information technology, remote-sensing technologies and spectral photometric analysis through chemical instruments — all in a very compact package, where from a very high altitude you can generate a great amount of information on a very precise sector of Earth. That’s exciting, that’s innovative, that’s creative. And it also has very practical applications for the betterment of our lives. Growing crops is a fundamental issue that is important to us.
That’s what excites me about this place