Meet G. Michael Purdy, Columbia's research czar

On Friday, Spectator sat down with G. Michael Purdy, Columbia’s executive vice president for research, in his third floor Low Library office. Purdy has held the job for a year, before which he was director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. We spoke with Purdy about nanoscience, fundraising, and more.

Highlights from the interview:

  • Slightly more than half of the 65 to 70 spots in the building will go to the Medical Center, and the rest will be divided up between Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. It’s not yet clear how many spots will go to particular departments, though:

“There will be a number of people from biomedical engineering moving in there. Certainly there will be a number of people from psychology moving in there. The exact details of who it’s going to be is going to be determined over the next couple of years.”

  • Purdy said that renovations and updates to Columbia’s science facilities—many of which are aging and outdated—will be driven by fundraising. He has been working to create a list of “saleable things”—specific fundraising projects that the University “can make exciting,” including the development of a Theory Center in Pupin Hall and renovations to Schermerhorn Hall’s rooftop greenhouse:

“We’re devoting substantial effort to identify funders for these initiatives, and as the money comes in, the detailed planning will go forward … It’s catching people’s imaginations. People want to give their money for something that is new and exciting and something that they think will have an impact.”

  • Columbia researchers submit about 3,500 grant proposals each year, and Purdy estimated that roughly 1,000 of them are accepted.
  • About two weeks ago, Columbia submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation asking for funding for a new Science and Technology Center, which would focus on nanoscience. Purdy sees nanoscience as an exciting field right now, noting that interdisciplinary researchers in the Northwest Corner Building have been focusing on it:

“Nanoscience is an area of technology in which Columbia has a lot of leadership. It is an area that could have a huge impact not only in medical science, but also in materials science… the proposal just went in a few weeks ago as an extremely competitive competition, with less than 10% success rates. It’s a very strong proposal and I’m very optimistic, but I’m also realistic.”

Purdy added that the Center would be a “virtual” center, which wouldn’t have a designated space or building but would allow for collaboration among faculty members.

  • Of the 21 lab spaces in the Northwest Corner Building, eight of them are still unfilled, more than a year after the building’s December 2010 opening. SEAS recently secured funding to finish construction on one of the building’s two unfinished floors, and the other unfinished floor—which will be filled by Physics Department faculty members—is “one of the many things on our fundraising list,” Purdy said.
  • Purdy discussed new conflict of interest disclosure requirements being implemented by the National Institutes of Health, which will feature greater reporting requirements for researchers. Purdy said that while it’s important to avoid conflicts of interest, the new disclosure requirements are too strenuous:

“There’s no question the impacts are going to be significant. It’s going to add an even greater load to researchers, which is terrible – it’s a very unfortunate trend in Washington right now, and the most frustrating thing to us is when you have different regulations from different agencies. It would simplify things so much if there was interagency cooperation so there could be a uniform set, but that’s not the case here.”

The new requirements ultimately boil down to more record-keeping and documentation, although their impact hasn’t really hit researchers yet, Purdy said. His office is still exploring how the changes will affect researchers, and what administrators can do to ease the burden on researchers.


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Columbia needs better physics, math and computer science. Columbia used to have one of the best physics departments in the world.

Anon posted on

It still is.

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