In 2006, biologist Terri Lomax was not looking for a new job. She had already left behind a distinguished career in academia to lead research and technology development programs at NASA headquarters. “And I was having a good time doing it,” she says.
But then Nina Allen, chair of the faculty at NC State, came calling. Allen asked Lomax to apply to be dean of the Graduate School and associate vice chancellor for research. “I told Nina, ‘I’m not ready to come back to academia yet,’ and Nina said, ‘Just come and tell them everything they’re doing wrong.’ I figured I could do that,” Lomax says with a laugh. “But then when I got here I was so impressed with NC State, Centennial Campus, the way NC State works with industry, how innovative this university is … they won me over.”
That’s how Lomax came to NC State. Eight years later, Lomax — now the vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development — is leaving the university to take a position as executive vice president of discovery-science-technology at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, effective later this month.
She’s departing after leading NC State to unprecedented research success. In the 2013-14 fiscal year the university set new records for sponsored research awards, at $308.3 million, and for industry-sponsored awards, at $35.8 million. Since 2007 the overall value of new research awards has increased by 60 percent. Over the same time, industry awards have more than doubled and federal awards have increased 71 percent, despite the negative impact of federal budget sequestration for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
These figures are even more impressive in light of the fact that they don’t include funding for the $140 million PowerAmerica advanced manufacturing innovation institute or the $25 million Consortium for Nonproliferation Enabling Capabilities, both of which were announced earlier this year. Funding for these projects commenced in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
Scientist and Policy Wonk
Lomax’s background — a combination of academia and administration — made her ideally suited to lead NC State’s research efforts. “In addition to being a scientist, I’ve also been a policy wonk, trying to understand the system and improve it for everybody,” she says.
Her career began in the botany and plant pathology department at Oregon State University, but right away she was doing more than teaching and research. “As a brand-new assistant professor, I got pulled into a group of senior folks who were designing a new graduate program, and I got to see right from the beginning how you create programs within a university,” she explains. “I was also brought into a very interdisciplinary position, like NC State’s cluster hires, so I worked across a broad range of programs from the start.”
Lomax changed focus in her career because agricultural biotechnology became a hot-button topic in Oregon in the 1990s. “Certain elements in Oregon had a lot of resistance to biotech, and there was a lot of misinformation out there,” she says. “The state had a ballot initiative to label genetically engineered foods, so I developed a program at Oregon State to provide balanced agricultural biotechnology information, and I became the state of Oregon’s lead communicator for biotechnology issues.”
The Great Communicator
As Lomax worked with the public, press and policymakers on biotech issues, she discovered that she loved communicating to important audiences about the value of scientific research. After the biotech ballot initiative was defeated, Lomax took on her next challenge: biological research in outer space.
“I’d always been fascinated by D.C. and how the whole research funding mechanism works, so when I got the opportunity to run the space biology program and then all research and technology development for human space exploration at NASA, I jumped at it,” she says. “It was a really formative experience — learning how to run big programs across a distributed organization.”
That experience prepared her well for her next job: leading research efforts at the largest university in North Carolina. Lomax says she’s proud of how the university has set record after record in research funding at a time when external funding has stayed flat or decreased. “And that wasn’t me; that was mostly due to the efforts and skill of our research faculty, staff and students,” she says. “I’m also proud of how we’ve increased our industry-sponsored research by making some innovative changes, such as our industry alliances office, which gives partners one-stop shopping and account-management services. We’ve also flipped our intellectual property model so that if a strategic industry partner sponsors research, they’ll be able to utilize the IP that comes out of it. And of course it helps that our faculty are very results-oriented, very open to working with industry. Our goal is to be the best and easiest university for industry to work with.”
During her time at NC State, Lomax was also on RTI’s board, giving her the opportunity to learn a lot about the organization. “I really admire RTI and their mission — to improve the human condition by turning knowledge into practice — so when I got the chance to play a significant role in that, it was too good to pass up,” she says. “It’s difficult to leave NC State, but I think this office is on a great trajectory, which makes it easier for me to leave. I’ve got a great leadership team here who will continue trying to find the best opportunities for faculty and develop great partnerships with industry.”
When asked what she’ll miss the most about NC State, Lomax says: “The enormous potential this university has. I’ll continue to be involved, though, because one of my goals is to get RTI and NC State more involved with each other. They are very complementary organizations. What I’d love to see is both organizations working with external partners as a package deal: Here’s what you get if you work with NC State and RTI.”
Knowing Lomax, she’s likely to find a way to make that happen.