New Dean Trades NSF for College of Science

OGDEN, Utah – David Matty, the new dean of Weber State University’s College of Science, comes to Ogden fresh off a two-year assignment with the National Science Foundation.

Matty said he was attracted to the position because of WSU’s “reputation for being focused on high-quality, undergraduate education, as well as a strong emphasis on involving undergraduates in research. Those are two things very dear to my heart.”

“WSU knows what it is and what its strengths are,” said Matty, who plans to build on that foundation.“My goal as dean is to establish our College of Science as one of the premier undergraduate science schools in the region,” Matty said.

Since arriving on campus in early August, Matty has been in “learning mode.” His highest priority is to build rapport with the “talented and dedicated faculty” in the college, primarily through visits and conversations.

“I think a successful dean has to have a vision of where the college should go, and the ability to figure out how to reach those goals and attain that vision,” Matty said.  “It’s folly to try to do that without consulting all of the stakeholders.”

Raising awareness and funding for a new science building is at the forefront of Matty’s vision.

“What we know about the way people learn has changed significantly from when the existing Science Lab building was built,” he said. “We should have more spaces that favor interactive learning among students and foster greater interactions between faculty and students. We need to provide our students with more hands-on experiences across the spectrum of math, sciences and technology, and also to provide resources that enhance faculty and faculty-student research opportunities.”

Upgrading existing laboratory space presents challenges. New scientific equipment and computational instruments often require special electrical and ventilation considerations that exceed existing or retrofitted infrastructure. A new building would better accommodate those demands, as well as allow all the science departments to be housed under one roof. Currently, the mathematics and developmental mathematics faculty members are housed in buildings separate from the other WSU science departments.

Matty said the so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are becoming increasingly more interdisciplinary. “The boundaries between STEM disciplines have really been blurring. Having all of our departments under one roof would surely foster more opportunities for collaboration. It’s exciting when people from different disciplines choose to work together and find ways to solve problems and move into new areas of research and learning.  I want to encourage that.”

In some cases, that means looking beyond his college, to partnerships with faculty and students in business, engineering, computer science and other departments on campus.

In addition to engaging his faculty, Matty spends time getting to know students.

“I talk to students whenever I get a chance. I stop them in the elevator or when I run into them in the hallway, and I’ll ask why they are here and what they are majoring in and how their classes are going. It’s important to maintain a connection with the students because ultimately,they are why we are here,” Matty said.

He encourages students to pursue undergraduate research.

“Undergraduate research provides students with the opportunity to develop and solidify their understanding of a subject,” Matty said. “It forces students to think critically and deeply about what they’ve learned about a subject and what they are learning from the research experience itself. It causes a mental evolution, by forcing student to use the facts they’ve learned to draw their own conclusions and to test and defend them. They can learn as much from their mistakes as their successes.”

Matty spent 25 years as a geology professor at Central Michigan University (CMU), his alma mater for his bachelor’s degree. From 2000 to 2009, Matty served as chair of the Department of Geology at CMU, before accepting an assignment as a program director in NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

The NSF assignment included reviewing proposals, mentoring principal investigators and funding research requests. During his time at NSF, Matty said that he “felt more like an investment banker than a scientist when it came to funding projects.” He estimates he saw close to a half a billion dollars in requests, but could only fund a tenth of that or less.

“I felt a great responsibility to make the best decisions I could to spend our taxpayers’ dollars wisely.  I had to look at funded projects as investments that had the potential not only to advance undergraduate STEM education and workforce development but also to increase our knowledge of how students learn best.”

He plans to draw on that experience in helping science faculty pursue external funding for their research.

“Dr. Matty’s experience with undergraduate science education and his work with the National Science Foundation will be beneficial to the College of Science,” said WSU Provost Michael Vaughan.

Originally from a southwestern Pennsylvania steel town, Matty moved to Detroit as a teenager. While this is his first time living in Utah, Matty is familiar with the western half of the country, having done geologic field research as a graduate student in the Blue Mountains of northwestern Oregon and along the northern border of  Idaho’s Snake River Plain.Matty earned a Ph.D. in geology from Rice University and studies the “plumbing systems of volcanoes that died and eroded away long ago.”

Always an educator, Matty points to the role science has played in the technological and medical innovations of the last 50 years. He suggests an ongoing commitment to the STEM fields is imperative if the United States is to remain a world leader.

“As a society and as a nation, we face many challenges ahead.  We are already facing issues related to globalization including increased competition from China and India, among others. Clearly, the US is facing increasingly competitive markets in many areas where we have been the world leader. How does America maintain its leadership – especially in science and technology, math and engineering – when we are already losing ground to our competitors?” Matty asked.

“We need to be more innovative. We need to train the next generation of students, not just to be scientists, but to be creative, critical thinkers who can develop into innovators and entrepeneurs.  We need to produce more STEM graduates to get out there and lead the way.”

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David Matty, dean, College of Science
John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
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