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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Tell me about your involvement with the PURA
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
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
You obviously feel these experiences are very
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
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
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