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Q&A with Andre Marshall

Dr. Andre Marshall, Vice President for Research, Innovation and Economic Development and President of the George Mason University Research Foundation. Photo by: Ron Aira/Creative Services/ George Mason University

Andre Marshall joins Mason as its new vice president for research, innovation, and economic development and president of the George Mason University Research Foundation on July 1. He also joins the faculty of the Volgenau School of Engineering. Before coming to Mason, Marshall was program director for the National Science Foundation’s $38 million Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Program, which helps researchers reduce the time it takes to translate promising ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace. He was also founder and director of the Fire Testing and Evaluation Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.

How did you get interested in engineering?

I’ve always wanted to be an engineer. In middle school, I was in a talented and gifted program, and I built my first radio. This was around 1982, and back then radio was a physical thing, not something to click your phone. This was before the [electronic] breadboards that students use today. There was no kit. We had a piece of wood and connected the wires across the nails. We used a soldering iron. It was a whole physical process, and it was fascinating to me and very satisfying in the end to build something that actually worked.

Is that what attracted you to mechanical engineering?

That’s an even longer story. I attended Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland, Oregon. When people think about Portland, and they think of the television showPortlandia,” they think of Intel and Nike. That’s not where I grew up [laughs]. Portland had a history of shipbuilding post-World War II. After that kind of dried up, it was still [focused on] the wood industry. Portland hadn’t yet transitioned to a high-tech hub, benefiting from the overflow of all of the California tech success, but we were kind of moving in that direction. My high school had been a trade school, where you learned a skill, whether it was sheet metal work or machining. Then the 1980s, when I was there, they started moving toward college prep, and I got this really cool balance early on. I was building things in a sheet metal shop and a machine shop. I got to work with my hands, and I loved it. I majored in robotics, but after my high school experience, I realized that I didn’t want to go into that field, so I decided on mechanical engineering. It was a lot of fun and a great experience to take into the laboratory. Oftentimes, we think of research as being very academic, and it is—and I love that part of it. But in engineering, research can be very hands-on in the labs.

What attracted you to this position at Mason?

I absolutely love Mason’s culture of accessibility and inclusion. I am excited about the idea of inclusive excellence. Also, Mason is an R1 university, which, as someone who absolutely loves the research enterprise, is exciting. I have high regard for what Mason has been able to achieve in its research enterprise. Combine that with this culture of access and inclusion, it is really going to be a lot of fun. This whole idea of executing excellent research while creating opportunities for more people through access—it’s really a dream for me.

Do you have a sense of what you will tackle first?

I have met with President Washington, and the major priorities of the university are in focus. Expanding the research enterprise is a priority, especially in digital innovation. And the Arlington Campus is going to be important to that expansion. The president is also prioritizing these grand challenges [1] so that’s certainly top of mind for me when visualizing what the research expansion might look like.

What are your thoughts on best practices for supporting and promoting multidisciplinary research?

The institute structure [2] that is in place at Mason is considered a best practice for promoting multidisciplinary research. Those areas of application—biohealth, sustainability, digital innovation—do in fact serve as a focal point where you can bring in experts that may have different areas of expertise surrounding a specific challenge. In my experience at a national level with [the National Science Foundation], looking at different universities and how they’ve organized themselves, Mason is already there. We have a great framework, and by the way, that framework is what attracted me to Mason. I was like, Oh my gosh, they’ve already figured it out. It’s what I would’ve done if it wasn’t in place, so I have high regard for my predecessors in building out that framework.

Speaking of your NSF experience and coming from that national view of research, were there any challenges at Mason that you were able to spot from the outside?

When you’re coming into a position, you do want to have a vision, you want to have something to offer. While it is a good thing to have your own ideas and your own values, it has to be tempered with learning what the institution’s real challenges are, and that takes time. I had some ideas from the outside about things that I could help Mason with, but in really learning and hearing more from the university, I began to understand better what some of Mason’s challenges were, and they weren’t necessarily what I thought they would be. So my approach is going to be to continue to learn the culture of Mason— that’s what I did at NSF—and to begin to understand where the opportunities are and where the challenges are from inside of the organization. And then harmonize those with my own ideas to make sure that we are doing things that are going to matter for Mason.

One of the things that we teach at [NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps)] in our experiential and entrepreneurial education programs is customer discovery. We teach researchers looking to translate their technology into a useful product or service to interview prospective customers and just learn from them. They cannot bias the interview by mentioning what their technology may or may not be able to do. They just listen for signals about problems or opportunities that their technology may be able to address. In doing so, they begin to understand how their innovations may or may not be useful. So I want to learn more about Mason and not be quick to push something that does not address an urgent need or create a meaningful opportunity. 

How can Mason best address the challenge of securing funding for large-scale applied research?

One of the things I spoke about in my public talk was how exciting it is to be an R1 university. It’s prestigious, and it’s also an awesome responsibility because we are in the top 131 universities performing research at the highest levels, and the nation will be looking to us to lead.

I want to look at it from that perspective: Large-scale is a responsibility, and it’s an opportunity for us to have an impact. To meet that challenge and have that national impact, we will need these large-scale research activities. The timing is good for us to be able to put some of the pieces in place with the support that we’re getting from entities such as Tech Talent Investment Program (TTIP) and our growing talent pool.

I think we should play to our strengths and also honor our core values as we think about where the opportunities may lie. The humanities and social sciences and the recent expansion in our science and engineering activities are all strengths for Mason. If we want to honor those strengths and stay true to our core values, I think we’ll be the most competitive, and there will be opportunities for us to truly differentiate our contributions.

What do you do for fun?

I love to garden—flower gardening, not vegetable gardening. I love to be out in the yard. I did a lot of yard work as a kid, and it’s really satisfying for me to get plants started and watch them grow.