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DRI charts a new course

Joel Williamsen and a student

Joel Williamsen brought his Center for Space Systems Survivability to DRI in 1998. Photo: Michael Richmond

The University of Denver Research Institute (DRI) scored quite a coup when it landed Joel Williamsen’s Center for Space Systems Survivability in 1998. But then, being in business at all was something of a coup; just a few years earlier, the institute’s own “survivability” stood very much in doubt.

“When I came on board, we only had one PhD on staff,” says Carl Lyday, DRI’s director since 1996. “The work we did was focused almost exclusively on explosives testing. I was brought in to restore DRI’s credibility as a research facility, diversify our scope, hire more principal investigators and put the finances back in order.”

“We want to build DRI not into what it used to be,” adds Provost Robert Coombe, “but into something that serves the students better and works for the mission of the University as a whole.” Until this fall, Coombe was dean of the Division of Natural Science, Mathematics, and Engineering (NSME), which oversees the institute and facilitates ties between academic faculty and DRI researchers. “We want to build a larger DRI that incorporates full-time researchers at NSME,” he says, “creating a larger organization with greater depth and better opportunities for students.”

Founded in 1947, DRI once ranked among the nation’s premier centers for applied industrial and defense research. Most of that early work was centered on weapons systems, but by the 1960s the institute had diversified into a broad-based research center. It employed several hundred full-time investigators working in a wide range of disciplines, including a large and successful social science unit. But the closing of the University’s engineering program in the early 1970s touched off a mass exodus from DRI, and financial woes in the 1980s led to further staff departures. “It was difficult to watch such a prestigious and dedicated organization go under,” says education specialist Barbara McCombs, who left in 1988 with the closing of DRI’s Social Systems Research and Evaluation Division. “I loved being a part of such a vital organization.”

Now back at DRI, McCombs directs the Human Motivation, Development and Learning Center. “There’s a genuine desire to support people who can get DRI back onto a research footing,” she says. “The challenge is finding the people.”

Lyday, one-time director of an Air Force research center, has taken strong steps in that direction. DRI now supports six programs in areas as disparate as aerospace, education and law enforcement. It will add a seventh next year when a materials-science expert from Los Alamos National Laboratories joins DRI.

“I’ve kept a very open door, and we’re getting lots of interest,” says Lyday, who retired on Sept. 1. “It’s a great opportunity for researchers. They get to call their own shots and pursue their own interests, and they enjoy all the benefits of an academic environment — including the opportunity to interact with students and faculty.”

“We love to work with graduate students,” says Williamsen, who enjoys a successful collaboration with Brooke Myers, a master’s candidate in physics and astronomy. She approached Williamsen on the advice of astronomy professor Robert Stencel, and her work at DRI has culminated in a multiple-year NASA research contract. “It has been a great opportunity for me,” Myers says. “I’ve been able to get some real-world experience within a university setting.”

And that, says Coombe, is a prime example of how DRI can enrich the campus experience for DU students.

“Integrating DRI with the academic side of the house has been a goal for years,” he says.

“We’re in a position now where this can happen. The institute is in terrific shape. It has a lot of great research going on. It’s in the best financial position it has been in for years. Now it needs to grow. The people it has are very good, but we need more of them. The key is to grow in a manner that preserves the course we have set.”

 

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