CU Denver professor Kevin Rens

CU Denver faculty received $20 million in sponsored research awards in 2017. To celebrate the achievements of nearly 100 faculty who received external funding, the Office of Research Services held a celebratory luncheon on March 15. Honoring scholarly and creative excellence across almost every school and department, the event also featured headlining presentations from two of CU Denver’s best and brightest: Kevin Rens and Timberley Roane.

‘Acknowledging the value that you bring to our university’

Following a warm welcome by Bob Damrauer, associate vice chancellor for research and creative activities, Chancellor Dorothy Horrell took the stage to recognize the faculty members in attendance. Quoting the recently deceased physicist Stephen Hawking, Horrell offered that “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell
Chancellor Dorothy Horrell talks about the importance of faculty research at the ORS luncheon in the Terrace Room.

The chancellor underscored that CU Denver researchers are making a difference across the Front Range and the country on the important issues of our time. Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Leila Tolderlund’s work on green building has led her to become an expert on new ordinances about green building in Denver. And Carlos Hipolito-Delgado, an associate professor of counseling who studies youth movements, has contributed to national conversations about student activism in response to the epidemic of gun violence. “When you think about the spectrum of issues that are shaping our world, many of our faculty’s scholarly endeavors are right at the heart of those,” Horrell observed.

Scholarly excellence leads to student success, Chancellor Horrell noted. “We know that involving undergraduate students in research and creative work is a high-impact practice,” she noted. Toward that aim, Horrell highlighted a pilot program that will begin this summer to hire undergraduates as research assistants. “It makes me very proud to say that we are a place that is doing incredible work, enriching our community and providing unmatched learning opportunities for our students,” Horrell remarked.

Rens’ research rescues roads

In an animated presentation, Kevin Rens, professor of structural engineering, described how his research is transforming Denver’s infrastructure. Over the course of a 21-year career, Rens’ work has helped to shift the City of Denver from a disorganized, “complaint-driven” maintenance schedule to one that can efficiently prioritize and target the areas of greatest need.

But Rens hasn’t been saving the city from potholes and bridge collapses by himself. After mapping and indexing every road, sidewalk and structure in the city, Rens and his team of students have come to be known as the “Curb Busters.” In addition to ensuring Americans with Disabilities Act compliance for city ramps, the Curb Busters have overseen structural integrity studies on the 6th and 8th avenue viaducts. All these projects add up to hands-on learning for Rens’ students, who benefit from working on the streets. “Seeing is believing,” Rens assured.

A ‘new educational opportunity’ with ‘collective impact’

CU Denver professor Timberley Roane
Timberley Roane, associate professor of integrative biology, talks about her research at the ORS luncheon.

Associate Professor of Integrative Biology Timberley Roane has long worked with indigenous student groups. But through the new Certificate in Environmental Stewardship of Indigenous Lands (ESIL), Roane aims to help indigenous STEM students develop more equitable communities and careers as environmental tribal liaisons. An innovative combination of coursework, internships and mentoring, the cornerstone of ESIL is a network of partnerships between CU Denver, governmental agencies and tribes.

ESIL was developed in response to disheartening trends and historical patterns. In higher education, only 0.3 percent of STEM doctorates go to indigenous students, and only half of indigenous students complete undergraduate degrees in six years. At the same time, tribal lands have been disproportionately affected by environmental threats, such as the pollution of the Animus River and the impacts of the Dakota Access Pipeline. ESIL looks to raise indigenous students’ retention, graduation and employment rates, and prevent or resolve ecological crises on indigenous lands.

The program adopts a decolonized approach through what Roane calls “collective impact.” “We as the university are not driving the programming,” Roane explained. “Instead, we’re going to our tribal and non-tribal partners and asking ‘Where’s the need? What’s the training that needs to be provided, and how can we provide it?’” ESIL also empowers diverse groups of students, emphasizing that historically underrepresented students “contribute in creative, amazing ways” because they possess unique perspectives and cultural competencies.

Research for the public good

With nearly 60 percent of their external funding coming from federal sources, CU Denver’s researchers conduct their work on the national stage. CU Denver faculty are also taking a multifaceted approach to solving today’s problems, addressing topics as varied as telemedicine, rural education, urban design and domestic violence prevention. “Your work exemplifies our distinctive role and responsibility as a public urban research institution,” Horrell noted of this year’s honorees.

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