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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 17, 2007 | Vol. 37 No. 15
Ted Poehler Looks Back at His 55 Years at Johns Hopkins

Ted Poehler, vice provost for research since 1992, in his Garland Hall office. He will step down from his post in early 2008.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Ted Poehler arrived at Johns Hopkins in 1952, just a 16-year-old freshman interested in science and engineering, and has gone on to help lead the research enterprise of an institution world-renowned for its expertise in this area.

In October, the longtime vice provost for research announced that he was stepping down from his post. He will take a one-year sabbatical and return to the faculty as a research professor in the Whiting School of Engineering to continue his work in conducting polymers.

At the time of his decision, Kristina Johnson, the university's new provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said she had already begun to rely on a man who has an "encyclopedic knowledge of the research enterprise at Johns Hopkins."

Poehler earned his bachelor's and doctoral degrees at Johns Hopkins and went on to serve as a researcher, teacher and senior administrator under presidents Eisenhower, Gordon, Muller, Richardson, Nathans and Brody.

He conducted and supervised research at the Applied Physics Laboratory and has directed APL's Evening College Center and Milton S. Eisenhower Research Center, and the Whiting School's part-time programs. Before joining the Provost's Office in 1992, he was associate dean for research in the Whiting School.

During his tenure, Poehler has contributed tremendously to the university, including taking on prominent roles with the Animal Care and Use program, Institutional Compliance Oversight Committee, Office of Research Projects Administration and Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program. He also has helped establish important interdisciplinary research efforts such as the new Human Language Technology Center of Excellence and the Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

The author or co-author of 154 papers and holder of 14 patents, Poehler has been a highly productive and widely regarded researcher in areas as diverse as electronic materials, gas lasers, organic and metallo-organic compounds and conducting polymers.

As his days as vice provost for research begin to wind down, The Gazette sat down to talk with Poehler about his career, the state of university research and his future plans.

You were just 16 when you arrived here. How unusual was that?

Somewhat, but Johns Hopkins was in that mode then. The president was a man named Detlev Bronk, who had a different idea of how the university should run, including that the academic programs should not be so highly structured. Students were free to enroll in courses without many constraints.There were certainly many students taking conventional programs, but some not so. I had a classmate who I think was the same age [as I] and started as a graduate student in mathematics.

Did you know what you wanted to do, or did you fish around a bit?

I moved around a bit. I started off in chemistry and thought that was kind of unexciting and so I switched to electrical engineering. I took a fairly eclectic program as an undergraduate.

Any one professor or class inspire you?

I suppose you can say I was very interested in what was happening in the field. This was the time when new technologies were coming out, such as semiconductors. That was what attracted me, and what I focused on as a graduate student. Ironically, in recent years my research has been a mixture of materials science, physics and chemistry, especially my work with polymers. I guess I don't find chemistry so unexciting anymore [laughs].

What would you say is your expertise?

When people ask me what I am, I have to give them a dissertation. No, really. In fact, it's common here--we're not conventional engineers anymore. If you went back 40 years, chemical engineers were the people who built oil refineries. Now we have chemical and biomolecular engineers, people working with biologic materials and the such. It's not the historic view of science and engineering; it's much more wide-ranging, and there's a lot more disciplines involved.

I was interdisciplinary at an early age, actually. People advised me that was a bad idea, that you should become an expert on one thing so that people will know you. Well, at least the six people who would pay attention [laughs].

What has been the most significant change in the research landscape during your time here?

One is just a tremendous increase in the size and scope of it. Hopkins is three times the size it was 30 or 40 years ago, but it's not just buildings, it's the scope of the programs. When I look at the charts we have of how much research we conduct and how much research funding we bring in, it's kind of shocking to see the change from say 20 years ago compared to the numbers we have today.

From a scientific point of view, the breadth is much different. Today, things are much more interdisciplinary. People interact between many different fields. You have those in physics and medicine interacting, engineers and biologists. There's not a narrow silo approach anymore. What you have instead is expertise in broader areas.

What brought us to this point?

I think it's very simple. The nature of science is such that you can't make the progress you need unless you tackle problems in a broader way. The other issue is that the kind of instrumentation we have now is much different. You know more about properties of matter and are able to make more measurements and have a bigger and better understanding of what it is you're looking at. The bottom line, however, is the people. The faculty at this university find each other more now.

Tell me what a vice provost for research does.

I try not to say [laughs]. In my case, I'm responsible for the research in the academic institutions. It's a combination of things, some of which is administrative and some of it scientific. I've always thought that what you should try to do is initiate or support interdisciplinary activities. When an effort cuts across the schools, we might need to step in to help raise money or organize people-- whatever it is we can do to support what we feel is a good idea. Sometimes, we are the instigators; we recognize something that should get started and try to get the word out.

What is the biggest change in terms of how research gets done?

There are several differences. Funding right now is very competitive. Over a five-year period, NIH doubled its budget; now it's flattened out, and in real terms, that means it's going down. You have to have incredibly good scores to get grant money. It's harder than ever. It's not that we don't succeed; we do, because we have a lot of really good people.

The second big difference is the huge increase in government regulation and measures of compliance. It's been part of my job to keep on top of that, and those regulations have impacted the faculty. It's more burdensome and takes up people's time, but it's essential to comply with regulations if you want government funding and want to get programs approved.

Tell me about your involvement with the PURA program.

Joe Cooper, the former provost, first suggested it. Since then, I have administered the program and developed the detailed approach that we have now. It's a big program, and a lot of people are involved. The whole thing was meant to make the research experience as realistic as possible for the students. Students are learning how to do things, including how to write a winning research proposal. The program has become very competitive, and hopefully it's something that will last well into the future.

What were your expectations of it?

I had a little glimmer. When I was in engineering, I had a small amount of money to distribute [for research], but nothing on the scale of what we now have. So I entertained proposals intermittently from students. I saw that a lot of students wanted to do things and needed support. Today, there is still a tremendous demand for support, and some of these demands fall within the parameters of the PURA grants; others don't, but that doesn't mean they are not meritorious. Maybe over time we will find more ways to support these kinds of student activities.

You obviously feel these experiences are very important.

Yes, the whole idea of students having experiences like this is tremendously important in their education. I've found that a research experience or internship experience can totally change a student's perspective of what they are studying academically.

Any particular student projects come to mind?

It would be hard to single out any particular project, but when you look at what the students are doing and what they accomplish, it's incredible. So many are doing very meaningful research. They are writing papers, they are presenting at conferences, they are first authors on papers jointly with faculty here. That is pretty significant, and every year you see that. If you came to the PURA poster sessions and didn't know who did the work, and you just looked at the posters, you would often have no idea it was done by students but would think you were in a professional society meeting.

What percentage of research for you is fun?

Well, research itself is really fun [laughs]. It's great to be able to do. However, being in an administrative position is different from doing research [laughs].

What are you going to do now with your time?

I'm getting back into research. There is a lot of interest in my work with polymers, and it will be fun to get back to spending time with that. But you have to go out and try to find funding.

Is there anything that you're working on that would be in a typical household?

Well, I hope some of it will be in your house [laughs]. We're working with the electronic and chemical properties of polymers in the hopes of developing a polymer battery. We hope to make it into a commercially viable product.


For many years, I was a tennis player, but I had to give it up after I hurt my back. I enjoy being around the water. I don't get a chance to sail much, but I'm hoping to have more time now. I'm thinking about getting a powerboat, too, and just spend more time around the water. And, I will certainly spend more time with my two grandchildren, something that I love to do.


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