Discovery Every Day

With humor, humanity, and an experimentalist’s rigorous intellect, research VP Jay Walsh helps create Northwestern’s knowledge ecosystem

By Matt GolosinskiSeptember 18, 2017

“See that graph?” says Jay Walsh, gesturing to one of many papers in his office at Northwestern’s Rebecca Crown Center. This one is taped to the vice president for research’s wall and depicts an impressive diagonal; a growth trend that is reliably steady-on, rather than, say, a frighteningly jagged slope tracing the volatility of a doomed emerging market portfolio.

“I like that graph. I like constant, steady improvement.”

Walsh’s graph is emblematic of how the University’s research enterprise has flourished over the last decade, climbing year-over-year and resulting today in annual sponsored research awards that exceed $650 million, despite a complex and competitive market. Harnessing talent from across all of its schools, Northwestern has designed an environment that encourages cross-disciplinary knowledge creation, including within more than 50 University Research Institutes and Centers, the administration of which flows through the Office for Research (OR).

In the 10 years since Walsh joined OR, moving from the McCormick School of Engineering where he has been a faculty member since 1988 and served as senior associate dean, the research office has consolidated its strengths. OR provides investigators with an integrated portfolio of expert services and resources, including strategic guidance, safety training, support for grant administration and research protocols, core facility and space administration, innovation commercialization, and more. The office plays an important catalytic role in the research “ecosystem” that Walsh credits as vital to Northwestern’s knowledge creation, so much of which draws from the institution’s collaborative culture. Infrastructure, financial capital, and thought leadership are critical elements in the ecosystem, he says, but not the only pieces.

“You start with talent. You need talent to drive breakthroughs, but you need talent that can work with other talented people,” says Walsh. Gifted faculty are essential, he adds, and so too are exceptional postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students, and staff. Strong administrative support means that “faculty can focus on their research, rather than on the technical or logistical details that keep the place running.” The right physical spaces, including shared core facilities with cutting-edge instrumentation and teams of PhD-level scientists who know how to get results from those tools, is another key.

While many universities aspire to be collaborative, Walsh says that Northwestern succeeds because of this ecosystem and the talent it attracts, but also because of its relatively modest physical size.

“Part of what’s different here is that our campuses are geographically small,” he says. “Proximity matters. Micro-geography matters. We’ve been able to provide good quality space within a small footprint. I’ve been at places where there’s a small footprint, but it’s 30 stories tall and the people on the 30th floor have a hard time talking with the people on the 3rd floor.”

From birds to biomedical engineering

Walsh seems comfortable talking with everyone. His days are crammed full of meetings with various stakeholders — faculty, administrators, corporate and government partners, or peers from other universities, either on campus or else in Springfield, Illinois, Washington, D.C., the Bay Area, China, or elsewhere.

Modest and self-effacing, Walsh focuses on understanding a wide range of fields and making connections across different knowledge domains. He has a natural enthusiasm for bold ideas, especially research with transformative social potential.

The son of a nurse and engineer and the oldest of five siblings, Walsh’s own scholarly explorations began at a young age: he delivered his first “research talk” in second grade when a teacher was so impressed by his knowledge of birds that she requested he deliver a formal presentation. “That was kind of weird,” Walsh admits, but he acknowledges that his passion for birds began before kindergarten. By fourth grade he had produced a 52-page handwritten report on bird flyways and nesting patterns. “Remember, it was likely big, fourth-grade handwriting,” he says. “But yeah, birds were a big deal for me, and they were everywhere where I grew up.”

Walsh was raised in suburban Foxboro, Mass., and later his family had a home on Cape Cod that was frequently renovated (“I learned a little about hammers and saws,” he recalls). A self-described nerd who during high school began taking weekend courses at MIT for fun, Walsh also enjoyed being around others and says he learned a lot about human nature as a teenager during years as a golf caddy, waiter, and kitchen staff, all at a golf club in Woods Hole, just up the hill from the Marine Biological Laboratory where he would attend public lectures.

“The Marine Biological Lab was my first introduction to the scientific world at a deeper level,” says Walsh. “Because of our location, we’d have Nobel laureates come through the dining room, people like biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. I figured I should go listen to them talk about their work. We would also have a number of people who ran major high-tech companies in the Boston area. Frankly, they were really nice people.”

His decision to pursue an academic career had a straightforward origin: “I was interested in helping people, so the intersection of medicine and engineering seemed like a good idea.” After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from MIT, Walsh received his doctorate in medical engineering in a joint Harvard Medical School-MIT program in 1988. But he recalls that only a few years earlier one of his advisers declared that bioengineering would never be a proper discipline. Biology was too descriptive a science to be properly applied to engineering, the adviser claimed. It lacked the requisite fundamental principles.

“I clearly remember sitting and listening to him,” Walsh says. “He told me his conclusion, but he also told me why he came to that conclusion. That’s really important. I learned a lot in that one minute. He was probably right about biology — at the time — but my view was ‘well, then we’re going to have to change that and learn those fundamental principles.’”

Walsh says that the first two decades of his academic career were primarily about seeking those principles in the field of biomedical optics. “We wanted to understand fundamental light/tissue interactions — how to get light into and out of bodies for the purposes of diagnosis and treatment.” The findings led to diverse applications, including a range of dermatological and laparoscopic techniques, some of which have since been replaced with non-laser approaches. “But without that early optical work, you wouldn’t get to where we are today, especially in the area of tissue healing, where lasers allowed us to control tissue damage precisely and so study healing in detail.”

In fact, disciplinary boundaries shift all the time, Walsh says. Sometimes it’s new technologies that allow a field to advance in ways once thought inconceivable. Nanotechnology, for example, has enjoyed a revolution because of tools that allow for characterization and manipulation of materials on a scale that could not be performed previously. For similar reasons, quantum computing, too, is no longer considered naïve, after years of being viewed by funding agencies as “words they didn’t want to see in a research proposal.”

Recently, artificial intelligence has emerged as an area with significant potential. “We’ve been talking about AI for generations, and you couldn’t do it on a scale that would have societal impact,” says Walsh. “Today we absolutely can do this. Why? Because we now have the ability to generate data and store it in ways we couldn’t previously. We have the computational ability we didn’t have five, 10, or certainly 20 years ago. We can gather data and build the algorithms that are at the heart of artificial intelligence.”

One of the reasons that Walsh has always enjoyed working with students is because of their audacity, the daring way they can approach research questions. “Students sometimes don’t know what can’t be done,” he says. “They just go out and do it. Those of us in a field often remember a conclusion, but the boundary that originated that conclusion may have disappeared over time, in the interim between when someone declared the conclusion and when these students came along.”

Playing to win

Walsh begins most days with an early morning run along the Evanston lakefront, something he’s done for years. The routine invigorates him and provides regular time for reflection before he heads to the office. While running may be a solo activity, Walsh’s early love of soccer provides insight into his collaborative nature, a quality integral to Northwestern’s culture.

“I grew up playing a team sport, and you come to understand that scoring goals is a kind of chess game,” says Walsh, noting that he has had the great honor of working with exceptional people throughout his Northwestern tenure. “Sometimes the important passes happen well before the actual goal and having a great team to make this all possible is how you win.”

Walsh sees Northwestern continuing to develop its research potential — including through collaborative science — to make breakthroughs across diverse areas, from biomedical advances and computational science to engineering, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities.

The University Research Institutes and Centers are one aspect of the discovery ecosystem that promises to spur such advances. Intrinsically cross-disciplinary as individual entities, some of these institutes and centers have begun collaborating with one another, producing a kind of “and/and” amplifier effect. Some examples include work being pursued by the Buffett Institute for Global Studies and the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), as well as between the Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering (NAISE) and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy (ISEN). Another major example is the recently launched Institute for Developmental Sciences (DevSci), which draws from an extraordinary range of disciplines across Northwestern. (Actually, Walsh’s list of such collaborations is extensive and includes research relationships between The Block Museum and McCormick; the Synchrotron Center and the Art Institute of Chicago; the Crown Center and the Water Center; Simpson Querrey Institute and  the Ryan Ability Lab, etc.)

“These kinds of collaborations are bringing together incredible talent, people who are pursuing new knowledge in ways that promise to transform disciplinary boundaries,” says Walsh. “More importantly, when they work together they synthesize ideas and develop fresh frameworks and tools to solve challenges that really matter for society. To me, this is what Northwestern research is all about.”

Joseph (Jay) Walsh