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NMSU College of Engineering highlights faculty research successes

DATE: 10/18/2019
WRITER: Linda Fresques, 575-646-7416,
CONTACT: Phillip De Leon, 575-646-3771,

DeLeon_EoR-394x250.jpgPhillip De Leon, former associate dean of research for the NMSU College of Engineering and new associate vice president of research, said NMSU’s engineering college is as competitive for research funding as the top schools in the nation. (NMSU photo by Vladimir Avina.)

Faculty researchers from the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University notched several research-related accomplishments during the 2019 fiscal year (July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019), setting the stage for even more successful years to come.

College of Engineering research expenditures grew more than 26 percent to $13.1 million—the highest level since 2014; the number of new awards was up 42 percent and up 52 percent by dollar value. Google Scholar data showed NMSU engineering faculty members published 258 articles in 2018 compared to 112 in 2017. In the period from 2013-2018, engineering faculty publications were cited more than 46,000 times.

“Our faculty are at the forefront of several key research areas in engineering. They are among the best of our peers in terms of research productivity. The number of publications per faculty, number of citations and h-index, place our programs in the top quartile of our peers,” said Lakshmi N. Reddi, dean of the College of Engineering.

The number of research proposals written in the prior fiscal year also increased. “They are certainly up, not as sharply as expenditures are, but they are up. What’s interesting is the yield is much higher. The yield is the ratio of the number of proposals written to the number of awards made. What that tells me is that given increased competition, the proposals being written are of higher quality,” said Phillip De Leon, who served as the College of Engineering’s associate dean of research for the past three years and has recently been appointed as associate vice president for research at NMSU. De Leon has been a member of the faculty since 1996 and holds the Klipsch Distinguished Professorship in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“This past fiscal year was an extraordinary year for research in the College of Engineering. One good year doesn’t necessarily indicate a trend, but I’m very optimistic,” said De Leon.

Many of the research programs that were conducted past fiscal year are multiyear awards and will continue this fiscal year. On top of that, a significant number of research proposals were funded leading to new grants and contracts, setting an upward trajectory for the coming years.

De Leon points out that the growth from past fiscal year was not attributed to just one or two faculty members or a single department. “The best news about this increase is that it was spread across all of the major departments including civil, electrical and computer, mechanical and aerospace, and chemical and materials engineering.”

With external research funding coming in from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, among others, De Leon believes that NMSU’s engineering faculty are very competitive with faculty researchers from the best universities in the country.

“It’s evident if you look at where our grants and contracts are coming from: these are the same agencies and national labs that the very best engineering schools in the nation are proposing to.”

De Leon attributes the successes to several factors.

First, a number of established faculty in the college have started to scale up their research efforts, going after million-dollar plus grants. Second, the college made a number of strategic hires with the goal to enhance specific research areas and these faculty are beginning to receive funding for their research.

“The faculty are just doing fantastic. They have new ideas for research and are initiating new external collaborations. We carefully focused on rebuilding and starting new collaborations with researchers from Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The faculty are looking for new opportunities and identifying people to collaborate with,” said De Leon. While faculty members are collaborating within the College of Engineering, they are also working with researchers in other colleges at NMSU, including Arts and Sciences and Agriculture, especially in interdisciplinary areas such as cybersecurity, energy, data science and machine learning, and water.

Reddi and De Leon instituted strategic internal research investments over the past few years to support proposal submission. One such program provides $10,000 minigrants to assist faculty members in their pursuit of external funding. Under this program, the college to date has made 15 awards. At least four of these minigrants have led to large grants of $300,000 and more, including a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation award on brackish groundwater desalination in south-central New Mexico.

Another internal research investment program provides $50,000 per year for five years for teams of researchers pursuing an Engineering Research Center, whose researchers work in partnership with other universities and industry to pursue strategic advances in complex engineered systems and technologies. The college is currently funding a team led by Associate Professor Krishna Kota in mechanical and aerospace engineering as they pursue an ERC.

The college is already home to several ERCs including:

Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics
National Science Foundation; $18.5 million, five-years, awarded 2015. NMSU co-principal investigator: Associate Professor Paola Bandini, Civil Engineering.

Interdisciplinary Center of Research Excellence in Design of Intelligent Technologies for Smart Grids
National Science Foundation; $5 million, five-year grant, awarded 2014, renewed 2019. NMSU co-principal investigators: Enrico Pontelli, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Regents Professor and Satishkumar Ranade, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the PNM Endowed Chair for Utility Management.

Reinventing Urban Water Infrastructure
National Science Foundation, $18.5 million, five years, awarded 2011, renewed 2016. NMSU co-principal investigator: Professor Nagamany Nirmalakhandan and the Ed and Harold Foreman Endowed Chair in Civil Engineering.

Transportation Consortium of South-Central States (Tran-SET)
U.S. Department of Transportation; $2.5 million, five-years, awarded 2017. NMSU co-principal investigator: Professor Craig Newtson, Civil Engineering.

The most recent major award is the U.S. Department of Energy five-year, $100 million grant to create the Energy-Water Desalination Hub to address water security issues, awarded in September. As a member of the National Alliance for Water Innovation team, Pei Xu, PESCO Endowed Professor and Ward Family Endowed Interdisciplinary Chair in Civil Engineering, is leading NMSU’s effort in the consortium that includes three national laboratories, 19 universities and 10 industry partners.

The benefits of a strong research program are many, with impact that spans from our students to the world, says De Leon.

“It keeps faculty where the state-of-the-art is. Engineering and technology move fast and it is very important for our faculty to stay relevant in research and to bring new knowledge into the classroom. It enhances our reputation and shows that our faculty are constantly on the move, they are learning, and they are pushing the boundaries of research. It makes it a very exciting place that people want to be a part of.”