Unusual suspects: TU continues to expand its research reputation - The University of Tulsa
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Unusual suspects: TU continues to expand its research reputation

At The University of Tulsa, scholarly activity has long been a core component of faculty work. From oil technology to oil tycoons, the subjects of research at TU have been as vast as the open prairie where Tulsa was founded.

people holding award in front of projector
President Carson presents the 2023 Distinguished Graduate Student Research Award to Rusiri Rathnasekara (physics)

“Every great city has a great university that drives the economy, feeds the culture and raises the bar for education. TU is that engine for Tulsa,” said President Brad R. Carson. “Part of what makes a university great is the commitment to pursuing research at the highest level – receiving major awards and grants, publishing books and papers in peer-reviewed journals, making groundbreaking discoveries. This is TU’s destiny.”

TU’s smaller size allows a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to myriad research opportunities, which is a boon as the university seeks to step up from a proud legacy as a level 2 research institution in the Carnegie Classification into the top tier, or “R1” status. Led by Carson and Vice President for Research & Economic Development Rose Gamble, TU is on a trajectory to achieve this elite designation in fewer than 10 years.

“Faculty are excited about this prospect. It unites the university in the quest to increase investments in research and scholarly activity and build the momentum to achieve and sustain R1 status,” Gamble said. “While building on existing strengths in cyber and energy, we’re also expanding our footprint in opportunities from neuroscience and robotics to cancer treatments and trauma studies. Given the strength of the TU faculty, the goal is definitely achievable.”

TU has a storied research history. For a century, TU has been building infrastructure to advance technology in petroleum and chemical engineering. North Campus is the university’s largescale research facility, with acres of buildings and equipment that allow faculty to test theories in a real-world environment.

Photograph of Cem Sarica

North Campus has grown over 55 years to serve more STEM disciplines, including mechanical engineering, computer and electrical engineering, cybersecurity, chemistry and geosciences. “North Campus is a completely unique facility. There’s not another one like it in world,” said Cem Sarica, the Floyd M. Stevenson Distinguished Professor of Petroleum Engineering. “It may not be well known locally, but it is known internationally among the biggest oil and gas companies.”

Sarica directs three industry-supported consortia at North Campus: Fluid Flow, Paraffin Deposition and Horizontal Well Artificial Lift Projects. “The university provides results of technological research to companies that are members of the consortia, so it directly benefits businesses while providing resources to faculty and students,” he said.

Much like the oil that they examine, students often come to North Campus as crude and rudimentary researchers and emerge refined and prepared at commencement. Those who are specifically interested in combatting climate change and implementing energy expansion also call TU home. Ongoing and upcoming projects include:

  • Oil and gas pipeline security
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Hydrogen production, transportation and storage
  • Solar power production and storage
  • Methane emission measurement, estimation and remediation
  • Produced-water management

While TU’s past as an energy education and research giant is legendary, the university also has a rich history of significant scholarship in fields such as biology and biochemistry, psychology and sociology, anthropology and history, English and literature, kinesiology, business, law and much more.

External grants from government agencies and nonprofit organizations as well as funded research through corporations is the rocket fuel that propels academic pursuits. These entities have a vested interest in the novel findings that universities produce. TU has devoted resources to aggressively pursue new forms of financial support for this activity and to add to the ranks of the already outstanding faculty, doctoral students and post-docs.

Photograph of Rose Gamble

As part of the research enterprise, the Technology Transfer Office, manages the patents that come from the work carried out by TU researchers. Director Bill Lawson shepherds proprietary findings through the patent process so the investigators – and the university – can claim the rights. Gamble’s office also is ingrained in the commercialization of research and is now working with the Collins College of Business’ new Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Staff and advisers have been carefully selected to offer expert guidance and sometimes financial support to get an idea off the ground and into market.

Each of these examples of support helps fulfill the requirements necessary to reclassify TU as an R1 university, which is reserved for those performing the most impactful research. The designation also brings a heightened awareness among peer institutions and a reputational bump in the higher education realm.

“Continuing to advance our research capabilities is a winning strategy for TU,” Gamble said. “It allows us to attract bright, promising students and faculty. It brings in more revenue that, in turn, generates more opportunities. It builds a better future for our city and our state, and it creates new knowledge and new leaders to improve our world.”