Vice President for Research Edmund “Ed” Synakowski is passionate about three things: nuclear fusion, economic development, and interdisciplinary research.
He was hands-on with the first, spending 17 years at Princeton University's Plasma Physics Laboratory. And with the latter two, as the vice president for research and economic development at the University of Wyoming. Since August, Synakowski has led the Division of Research at UNLV — a fitting landing spot for a nuclear researcher given Nevada's atomic history.
He has begun meeting with deans and faculty to better understand the research culture at UNLV. Synakowski says that for a university to be in the top tier this century, it will need to identify challenges that demand interdisciplinary approaches while also being nimble in partnering to form the teams that can confront these challenges.
A majority of Synakowski’s career was spent at Princeton University’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), a national laboratory where he performed nuclear fusion energy research before moving into research group leadership and administration.
After 17 years at PPPL, he became the director of the fusion energy program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before heading up the office of fusion energy sciences at the U.S. Department of Energy. After eight years there, he set his sights on higher education, attracted to the potential of universities with broad research portfolios and a commitment to research to take on some of society’s most complex and pressing challenges.
How did you make the transition into higher education?
I made the transition informed by my own research, and many conversations with university colleagues, advisors, and other mentors. I’ve been blessed with great mentorship. I’ve always felt I had an outlook and temperament that would be well suited to an academic setting.
It is important to me to be part of an institution that regards research as something to be broadly interpreted, including the STEM fields but also the arts and humanities. Many universities provide a toolbox with all of these attributes, and UNLV has one of the most compelling sets of resources in this regard that I’ve seen. The leadership challenge I am drawn to is working together to make the most impact, societally and educationally, with these resources.
Potential opportunities between the federal government and UNLV
Congress is currently working through budget legislation that could dramatically increase spending in the STEM research programs that are administered by NSF (National Science Foundation), NIH (National Institutes of Health), DOE, and elsewhere. Combined with my federal experience, I am hoping I can bring something to the table to help catalyze some of these new opportunities and to ensure that their pursuit is in the strategic interest of UNLV.
There is also untapped potential in how we engage with our federally funded national laboratories and facilities in the Southwest and across the country. This has to ultimately be done against a strategic framework for research and scholarship that has buy-in from the leadership here, as well as the faculty.
What attracted you to this role at UNLV?
There are many aspects of UNLV specifically that I have found compelling. One, throughout the interview process, from students to the Division of Research staff members, to the provost and the president, everyone I met has been authentic and optimistic. I learned of institutional challenges in my conversations, but all of these discussions took place in the framework of institution-wide optimism.
Two, I was attracted to UNLV’s ambition to do great things. It has a commitment to grow research and to innovate so as to be an unquestioned national force in research and in education that captures the potential of research in its mission.
Three, the institution’s diverse cultural representation is a most compelling aspect of this campus to me. UNLV has the opportunity to show, at a particularly important time of vigorous social push-and-pull in this country, how such a makeup can and must be a resource for societal good.
And finally, UNLV’s tremendous growth in a short period of time raises questions that really interest me. For one, how is its own sense of identity evolving? There is great opportunity as VPR to work with others who see the same challenge and opportunity to help shape a future UNLV that is truly notable and impactful nationally. In all of this, UNLV’s institutional youth is an asset. Having such a platform from which to work with others on these issues is a great privilege, and can enable a work life for me that is rewarding at the highest level, and fun.
A high priority is listening both within and outside of my own office. I am assessing needs regarding research office services, how this all-important class of work is experienced on campus, and what the work experience is in my office. I’ve met an outstanding group in the research office that leans into service and is working hard to implement processes that can scale to a research enterprise that is much more vigorous than it is now. But it is understandably strained, a consequence of the rapid institutional growth here.
UNLV will not fulfill its potential as a research-intensive institution without excellence in this domain, and I need to understand the resources required to ensure continued excellence. For this, I’ve received a great head start by learning from Lori Olafson [who served as interim vice president of research]. The university owes her a great debt of gratitude. She left her post with the research office in good shape and with a clear understanding of the challenges ahead.
First day on campus
I was welcomed by my office staff, which is something I came to happily expect from my interviews and my several visits over the summer. My staff kept my calendar simple, and so I had the rare chance to take a deep breath or two and take it all in. I met with my associate and assistant VPRs, and was quickly drawn into the practical challenges that are on our plates. I was also really pleased to take in the renewed vitality as students moved about campus with high energy, as they were clearly happy to be here after a most difficult year-plus.
Leaving the small college town of Laramie, Wyoming, for the bright lights of Las Vegas is a significant move for you and your wife, Ellen. What inspired your decision?
All of the positive attributes of UNLV that I described earlier were part of the decision to pick up and move. The optimism and authenticity that I encountered in my discussions leading to my decision also were critically important. There is also personal value in being in a major transportation hub, which will enable closer connection to our kids as they are getting on their feet.
A final piece that makes me smile is the opportunity here for social connection. I play trombone. I played in the Washington, D.C. area with a swing quartet as well as a couple of Dixieland bands. It sure was a stretch for me, playing with some pretty good talent. Soloing would take me out of my work headspace. Before that, I’ve always enjoyed playing with symphonic bands, community orchestras, big bands, brass quintets, and even a British brass band that I was in on the ground floor of its start back in Princeton. All of that has enabled the formation and nurturing of some deep friendships over 35 years or more. These groups have also provided great landing strips for me when I have moved between cities and towns. I think the opportunities for me here to partake in some slice of the music scene are tremendous, maybe as rich as anywhere in the country.
Broadly speaking, I understand Las Vegas has many, many people who have moved here from elsewhere. I have to believe many of them are seeking to be part of communities themselves, and so I am hoping we will find open doors as we make our own new connections with people.
What’s the most “Vegas” thing you’ve done?
We’ve eaten at some fantastic restaurants. We are still managing the logistics of our move and are getting set up at our small apartment, which has meant we’ve had to get out and have simply great dining experiences. I know, it sounds tough, but somebody has to do it!
What was your best surprise about moving to Las Vegas?
I was told that Las Vegas is more than the Strip, but I was surprised to learn how much more there is. That said, I think the Strip and all it represents is exciting and fun. I am a bit surprised that I find myself smiling every time I encounter the lights and buzz of it, and think about the sheer intensity of the hospitality and entertainment scene and all of the possibilities that come with that. Ellen and I have already been to two fantastic jazz performances at the Smith Center.
Another aspect of Las Vegas that has been a wonderful surprise has been the extraordinary beauty of the region, ranging from Red Rock Canyon to the views from the hills of Henderson and Summerlin.
Finally, after getting to know people, I am not surprised at the welcoming ways of everyone Ellen and I have met. It really is the thread that runs through everything attractive about this opportunity at UNLV and our move to Las Vegas.