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Army focuses on university research

Undersecretary Joseph Westphal visited campus to explore advances in fields such as neuroscience, which could have an impact on the lives of veterans.

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The United States Army has strong ties to The University of Texas at Austin in research and in officer training.

Undersecretary of the Army Joseph W. Westphal came to campus looking to make those relationships even stronger.

Joseph Wesphal

Undersecretary of the United States Army Joseph W. Wesphal (center) visited The University of Texas at Austin campus and met with researchers in neuroscience and energy, as well as Texas Army ROTC cadets and members of the Senior Service College Fellows.Photo: Marsha Miller

Westphal, the second-highest-ranking civilian official in the Army, visited the university March 8 and got a taste of research in neuroscience and energy areas of concern for the Army and other branches of the armed forces. He also met with members of the university’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

Texas was the first of several stops Westphal hopes to make at universities during his tenure as undersecretary.

Westphal is not a stranger to academic life. He was chancellor of the University of Maine System and a political science professor at the University of Maine. He also was provost and professor at the New School in New York City and a faculty member at Oklahoma State University.

The University of Texas at Austin has had a long research relationship with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Army. The Army sponsored an average of $13.6 million in research at the university during the past three years.

Besides research, the university has also provided the Army with its chief scientist. Scott Fish, director of the university’s Institute for Advanced Technology, has served as the Army’s top science adviser since 2010.

Westphal said the goal of his campus visit was to get a better idea of the resources the university has to offer the Army.

“Whether it’s in engineering, health-related fields, business administration, all of those things give me a flavor,” he said. “This is a first visit to explore that.”

Westphal said he appreciated the spirit of collaboration between the university’s researchers.

“It might be a function of your size and your capacity, but the fact that you’ve got multiple fields working and collaborating in cutting-edge research is something I walk away with pretty impressed,” he said. “And it’s what we look for, that kind of synergy in different disciplines. They’re all integrated in some ways. And I saw that as I went through some of the research examples of the work being done here.”

Joseph Wesphal and Jeffery Luci

Westphal discusses MRI research and its application in the study of brain injury with Jeffrey Luci, assistant professor of neurobiology in the Imaging Research Center.Photo: Marsha Miller

Neuroscience research is of particular interest to the Army because of the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

“A lot of our soldiers are exposed to potential brain injury,” Westphal said. “They’ve been in an explosion. They’ve been in an attack. They may not think themselves to have been injured dramatically, physically. They say they’re OK and they look OK, but there might be something wrong.”

Finding out whether something is wrong and how to treat it are problems that university researchers are already grappling with, which is why Westphal’s campus tour started with the new Imaging Research Center in the basement of the Norman Hackerman Building.

The centerpiece of the center is a new magnetic resonance imaging machine, the latest in the technology, according to Jeffrey J. Luci, research assistant professor and manager of the scanner.

The center takes a multilevel and collaborative approach toward understanding memory, traumatic brain injury, development of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.

The tour included the labs of Kristen Harris, a leading expert in electron microscopy; Ila Fiete, a computational biologist; Alison Preston, who studies human episodic memory; Helmut Koester, who uses high-speed lasers to study neuronal circuits; Michael Mauk, who studies working memory at the circuit and behavioral levels; and Kimberly Raab-Graham, who researches the molecular basis of learning and memory and neurodegenerative diseases.

Joseph Wesphal and energy security researchers

University researchers briefed Westphal on projects concerning energy security.Photo: Marsha Miller

After a walk across campus, the focus turned to energy research.

“The Army, as well as all the services, is looking at how we can become more energy efficient, how we can protect the environment in a more significant fashion, how we can address our security issues in respect to energy,” said Westphal, who was briefed on several energy projects at the university.

Westphal was particularly interested in a microgrid project that is developing a simulated model of a military base that would use renewable energy sources so that it could disconnect from the local utility if necessary.

The project, led by John Herbst, a researcher at the university’s Center for Electromechanics, has addressed issues such as the availability of renewable resources and amounts of energy storage needed to run a military installation.

“What we’re trying to do is give you the tools to lay out a long-term plan to upgrade your infrastructure to give you that flexibility that will allow you to address these (issues),” Herbst said to Westphal.

Westphal asked Herbst to send him a copy of the project’s final report.

Joseph Wesphal and Noah Koubenec

Westphal greets Global Policy Studies graduate student Noah Koubenec during a group discussion with other Texas Army ROTC cadets and Senior Service College Fellows.Photo: Marsha Miller

The last stop of Westphal’s visit was a gathering with members of the university’s ROTC program.

He said education in a university setting where there’s a clash of ideas and a high degree of diversity is important to developing capable young officers.

“We’ve given more responsibility to our young leaders whether they are officers or enlisted,” he said. “With that leadership we need a better-educated soldier in the future, at all levels.”

Westphal said he hopes ROTC students learn from a variety of faculty members, especially those who are experts in their fields.

“First and foremost, these institutions are about the next generation of people, and that is about teaching, whether you do it in a research lab or you do it in a classroom,” he said. “And that’s what I want to see for our soldiers. I prefer a well-educated, rounded soldier to be the next leader rather than someone who’s just trained in military tactics.”