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Faculty share, socialize at ‘Lightning Lounges’

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

While his audience munched on complimentary popcorn and other snacks, University of New Mexico physics and astronomy professor Greg Taylor talked telescopes – or more specifically, the mysterious flash detected on the two scopes UNM built at separate sites 70 kilometers apart near Socorro.

Was it a satellite? A supernova? Maybe, but not likely, he said.

“We think we have possibly discovered a new type of radio source,” Taylor said. “Although at the moment, it’s a class of one, and we need to find more.”

“Could it just be E.T?” someone in the crowd asked light-heartedly.

“Yes, yes, that’s always a great explanation,” Taylor responded in kind, earning laughs from the room.

Taylor delivered his speech to roughly 25 other academics from across the campus during the October edition of the UNM Faculty Lightning Lounge. The university resurrected the dormant program this fall to celebrate faculty and potentially boost morale at an institution where compensation levels are an increasing concern.

Four professors take the stage at each gathering. They can highlight their teaching, research or outreach efforts – but they each get only 7 minutes.

Julia Fulghum, who directs a grant-funded faculty diversity and development program called Advance at UNM, said the sessions allow faculty to socialize and maybe even discuss future collaborations.

“It’s also important just for people to know how much is going on on campus and appreciate the intellectual diversity, which can just make people feel better about being faculty here,” she said. “There is good stuff going on regardless of what we read in the Journal or the budget. People persevere and continue to do really interesting creative things.”

Advance sponsors the Lightning Lounge sessions in concert with the Center for Teaching Excellence and UNM’s offices of academic affairs and the vice president for research.

Alex Lubin, associate provost for faculty development, recently cited Lightning Lounge as one of the institution’s low- and no-cost faculty retention initiatives. He told the regents’ Academic/Student Affairs and Research Committee last month that his office is working with Advance on a number of other strategies, like increasing dialogue with faculty to better understand existing concerns, decreasing their administrative burdens, and offering more workshop and mentorship opportunities.

“The point of these procedures is to think about ways that we can make faculty feel valued and to recognize their contributions and achievements,” Lubin said.

Between fiscal years 2013 and 2018, UNM saw 128 professors retire and another 102 leave voluntarily, Lubin told the committee. Those who left by choice in 2018 had generated about $6 million in sponsored research, he noted.

“Voluntary faculty separations take innovation and research funding away from campus and investment in faculty retention – i.e. through compensation and other work-life issues – is likely to be much less costly … than replacing faculty or hiring new faculty,” he said. “Therefore, we need to do everything we can to retain faculty by improving the quality of work life or faculty morale overall.”

UNM has about 1,800 faculty between its main campus and Health Sciences Center, and Fulghum said few opportunities exist for them to meet in scheduled but informal settings.

The Lightning Lounge “is really meant to mostly be faculty having a chance to hang out and talk,” she said.

University of New Mexico professor Christina Salas, who holds dual appointments in orthopedics and engineering and mechanical engineering, provides an overview of her research team's work during the UNM Faculty Lightning Lounge inside Hodgin Hall. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

University of New Mexico professor Christina Salas, who holds dual appointments in orthopedics and engineering and mechanical engineering, provides an overview of her research team’s work during the UNM Faculty Lightning Lounge inside Hodgin Hall. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

October’s lounge also featured Heather Canavan from the School of Engineering, political science professor Chris Butler and Christina Salas, who has dual appointments in orthopedics and engineering.

Salas said she appreciated the invitation to speak and explain the nature of her work – especially on main campus, since she spends most of her hours at the HSC.

Her brief presentation summarized her research team’s efforts to develop lower-cost prosthetics and a separate project meant to improve medical resident training by putting sensors on orthopedic instruments to help track common physician mistakes.

“To be able to reach out and tell other people on this side of campus what we’re doing over there and try to bridge what’s considered the ‘Lomas divide’ … that’s really important for me – (just to) be able to just to try to keep facilitating cross-campus communication,” she said.

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