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When Rowan University began their search for a candidate to lead the next chapter of the College of Science & Mathematics, there were several characteristics that were essential to filling this dean role. The University sought a leader who is collaborative, adaptive, and has a passion for use-inspired research, as well as someone who could bring a wealth of knowledge and experience in both teaching and research. Meeting all of these requirements and more, Dr. Vojislava Pophristic joined Rowan University in July 2021 and began her mission of helping to further build the institution’s academic excellence. 

Coming from a background in which both research and teaching played prominent roles, Pophristic was a chemistry professor and chair as well as the interim dean of the Misher College of Arts and Sciences at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Drawn to chemistry and physics for as long as she can remember, Pophristic says she became interested in how the laws of physics govern chemical processes and structures. “During my Ph.D. studies, I was attracted to computational chemistry because the discipline allows researchers to play outside the limitations that are imposed by the real world. Using this virtual chemistry playground, we can shed important light on the natural and synthetic structures and processes, without the obstacles that experiments often have. When these two areas come together—experimental and computational—they can give a much more complete picture than one approach could on its own.”

Revolutionizing Science and Math Education
Pophristic earned her Bachelor of Science degree in physical chemistry from the University of Belgrade, Serbia, and later, a doctorate in chemistry from Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She also was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemistry and Center for Molecular Modeling at the University of Pennsylvania. “Coming to Rowan was a natural progression for me.” explains Pophristic. “Moving into this role at this time is particularly exciting because the impeding transformation of higher education. Rowan is uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of this transformation in science and mathematics, with its rich environment, 17 colleges and schools, including 2 medical schools, a veterinary school in development, highly-ranked engineering college, and a commitment to its community, regional workforce, and global sustainability.” 

As the Dean of Science & Mathematics, Pophristic has three top strategic priorities, including strengthening use-inspired research, transforming science and math education for the 21st century, and increasing access, retention, and success for underrepresented minority students in STEM. “We have embarked on growing our research efforts in the areas of regional, national, and global challenges,” says Pophristic. “Transforming math and science education to meet the needs of today is essential, but we must also look toward the future and anticipate the nature of work in the world of rapidly evolving technology, in particular artificial intelligence. This transformation will require that we think differently about program content and structure, delivery methods, credentialing, and how we integrate data sciences, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computing into the education for scientists.”

Pophristic recognizes the access and retention of underrepresented minorities as a national challenge and one all institutions must address. “The first bottleneck is access; increasing it is critical. However, just as important are developing approaches to support retention and foster successful professional careers, particularly in STEM. Rowan is positioned well to address these areas: with its accessibility and affordability pillars, 2+2 and 3+1 programs with community colleges, and its location, it can grow and reshape the STEM workforce in southern New Jersey in unique ways. We will continue to develop and strengthen our programs to increase retention and give students the tools they need to have meaningful and successful careers in science after they leave our campus.”

Building Academic Excellence
Rowan University is the fourth fastest growing public university, with science and mathematics acting as major players in this progression. “As an economic engine for Southern New Jersey, Rowan is expanding rapidly in research and innovation,” explains Pophristic. “I wish to capitalize on this momentum and enrich research and education efforts, and provide support to students and faculty that will help solve global and national challenges such as those in health and life sciences, sustanability, and cybersecurity. Our focus is on fostering interdisciplinary research by building tighter integration between science and mathematics, and other Rowan schools and colleges. We also plan to support economic development and further build the STEM workforce by increasing our interactions with industry, health organizations, and other entities in our region.”

Rowan is among many institutions that are looking at ways to transform undergraduate education to provide students with the necessary knowledge and skill sets required not only for today’s workforce, but in the professions of tomorrow. “The careers that our current or incoming students will have in ten years do not exist now, so what our graduates will be doing a decade from now is unknown,” says Pophristic. “With the line blurring between traditional sciences and an unprecedented rate in technology development, we must think about education in entirely new ways. While there is a lot we do not know about how the fields of STEM will look in the future, we can be certain that data, computation, interdisciplinary themes, and a focus on scientific questions rather than on disciplines will be its critical elements.”

With a focus of restructuring education to better incorporate scientific problem-solving in the interdisciplinary domain, Pophristic wishes to integrate unique human skills, such as ethics, cultural competencies, and knowledge about the environment into the math and science curriculum. “To a large extent, we are now educating students for complex skills and knowledge.” says Pophristic. “We need to wrap our heads around the fact that repetitive tasks, regardless of how complex they are, will be shifting to machines. Thus, our focus should move to discovery, innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, communication, and other uniquely human abilities, that machines will never be able to do as well as humans. We need to be intentional in integrating these elements, and areas like data, computing, and artificial intelligence, with modern science education and practice.”

Expanding Interdisciplinary Research
As Rowan continues to transform and raise the University’s competitiveness for research, Pophristic says many opportunities are on the horizon. “Rowan has two medical schools, is opening a veterinary school, and has a strong biomedical engineering program. We also just partnered with Virtua Health System, providing numerous possibilities in life sciences. All disciplines in the College of Science and Mathematics are part of this life science road, with each one being critical for developing our overarching knowledge. Areas like statistics, data science, applied mathematics, biophysics, material science, biology, psychology, and chemistry—all critically contribute to life sciences. We are embracing these opportunities and growing with them. For example, this year we opened the Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry, and within the first month, we had eight students in the program.”

Oftentimes when growth is rapid within an institution, challenges can accompany the positive changes. “Just 25 years ago, Rowan was a college primarily focused on teaching; we’ve risen to an R2 university, and we are now quickly approaching R1 status,” says Pophristic. “We are continuing to build the infrastructure to support this growth, while ensuring that relevant entities in the wider community are aware of Rowan’s capabilities and connected to us. The complex problems we are facing today can’t be solved by one scientist or a group of scientists from one discipline, or by academicians alone. Collaborations will expand beyond a chemist and a biologist working together.  We’ll need sociologists, psychologists, engineers, basic scientists, applied mathematicians, artists, and others. We will need industry partners, government and non-profit entities, community involvement, all on the same team to tackle these complex problems that the world is facing now.”

Pophristic continues, “Rowan would greatly benefit from organizations such as Edge to keep us informed of new developments, technologies, and resources, and help us make better informed decisions as we grow our infrastructure. Additionally, Edge’s activities in gathering stakeholders to interact and strategize, as well as fostering collaborations between institutions, are highly valuable for Rowan and our expansion in scientific computing.”

“I wish to capitalize on this momentum and enrich research and education efforts, and provide support to students and faculty that will help solve global and national challenges such as those in health and life sciences, sustainability, and cybersecurity. Our focus is on fostering interdisciplinary research by building tighter integration between science and mathematics, and other Rowan schools and colleges. We also plan to support economic development and further build the STEM workforce by increasing our interactions with industry, health organizations, and other entities in our region.”

— Dr. Vojislava (Voki) Pophristic
Dean, College of Science & Mathematics, Professor of Chemistry
Rowan University

Excelling in Scientific Computing
With scientific computing having a transformative and growing importance in both research and education, Rowan aims to become a leader in computational science and help students develop critical skills that are needed to keep the business world running. “As a comprehensive university, Big Data computing is essential for the development of sciences, engineering, health, and social sciences; among others,” says Pophristic. “Rowan has a number of computational scientists in various colleges and departments, including Bioinformatics, Data Science, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Engineering, Environmental Science, and Geography. We have strategic initiatives in place that are focused on providing infrastructural support to researchers, training for students, streamlined resources—both hardware and software–and programmatic resources for developing collaborations between computational and experimental scientists. We not only want to become a leader in scientific computing in research, but also excel at integrating this discipline into our undergraduate education.”

To support these research and education priorities, Pophristic says working together is key. “We have celebrated many important milestones, such as the acquisition of the high performance computing cluster in 2015 and later the purchase of a cluster with 59 nodes through grant funds. In both instances, we see faculty working across departments and colleges, but also researchers working with various funding sources to purchase the necessary infrastructure. We are currently working on a model that will allow us to organize and align our efforts to provide access to shared resources and create synergy across Rowan. Our goal is to establish a structure that will allow sustainable growth and integration of computing in various disciplines and colleges.”

Pophristic says organizing researchers in a center structure allows the University to share purchases, streamline maintenance of hardware and software, and enable the timely replacement of hardware. “We’ve combined the know-how of computational scientists and IT professionals and we are able to provide more efficient training for students.  The way forward is to form the Center for Scientific Computing by creating a centralized computing facility as a shared platform for researchers across Rowan. Such a facility will provide efficiency in computing power, dedicated support personnel, efficient maintenance and replacement of infrastructure, and offer a platform for streamlined training of new users and the facilitation of interdisciplinary corroboration.”

The centralized facility will have dedicated personnel who will work together with faculty to help develop and execute research projects and educational programs. “We will have faculty and IT members working together on different aspects of computing,” explains Pophristic. “The Center will design programs that bring together researchers from different disciplines through seminars, workshops, and corporate events. We are also going to roll out regular workshops to train students and other users on basic scientific computing skills.”

“The NSF-funded Campus Cyberinfrastructure (CC*) planning grant, Advanced Cyberinfrastructure for Teaching and Research at Rowan University and the Southern New Jersey Region, will be instrumental in identifying the needs of the Rowan research community and its partners, and helping to shape the vision for research computing and the Rowan University cyberinfrastructure strategic plan. In addition to the Edge-Rowan partnership on the project, as a co-PI, a highlight for me is the collaborative spirit of the Rowan team in finding solutions that will impact not only Rowan’s researchers, but will help advance research initiatives of partner institutions within the broader community,” states Dr. Forough Ghahramani, Edge’s Associate Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Sponsored Programs.

Looking ahead, Pophristic says Rowan has a great opportunity to intensify its efforts in attracting and retaining a diverse group of students and helping more students of color have successful careers in STEM, and in particular, in computer science and computing. “We must provide students with the necessary knowledge, expertise, and soft skills to thrive in the workforce. Rowan already provides several programs for minority high school students in southern New Jersey and we want to continue to create more opportunities. There are truly transformative majors in higher education, and computer science is one of them. Not only can this discipline be life-changing for the student, but for the entire family, because of the highly competitive compensation that these students receive after graduation. We look to not only give students a superior education, but the confidence and support they need to progress through the program and enter a career in STEM with the skills and inspiration they need to make a positive impact on the world.”

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