Michael Purdy named executive vice president for research

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Michael Purdy / Photo: Eileen BarrosoG. Michael Purdy, who for the past 10 years directed Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), has been appointed the University’s executive vice president for research. In his new position, Purdy is responsible for establishing and administering policies that govern all research at the University, in the natural and biomedical sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Purdy oversees nine administrative units that provide support services to researchers and ensure their compliance with the terms and conditions of their funding. Some of these offices help faculty apply for grants; others hold training sessions to make sure researchers know the latest government health and safety regulations; another operates a hotline for members of the University community to report improper research practices. In addition, Purdy’s office encourages interdisciplinary research and provides seed money for early-stage investigations.

President Lee C. Bollinger, in announcing Purdy’s appointment in January, said the marine geophysicist possesses “not only the respected scholarly and administrative experience required in this position, but also a deep familiarity with Columbia’s academic culture and our ambitious goals for scientific research in the years ahead.”

A native of England who earned his PhD at Cambridge, Purdy came to Columbia in 2000 to direct LDEO, a rural campus in Palisades, New York, where scientists study the solid earth, its oceans, and the atmosphere. Previously, he directed the National Science Foundation’s division of ocean sciences, managing an annual research budget of more than $200 million; before that, he chaired the geology and geophysics department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

During Purdy’s tenure at Lamont-Doherty, its 200 scientists doubled the amount of federal research money they received, from $31 million in 2000 to $66 million last year. Purdy also oversaw the completion of the Gary C. Comer Geochemistry Building, a 70,000-square-foot facility that serves 80 geochemists at LDEO, and the conversion of a 235-foot commercial boat into a state-of-the-art research vessel, rechristened the Marcus G. Langseth, which LDEO operates for the National Science Foundation.

Arthur Lerner-Lam, a seismologist who served as Lamont-Doherty’s associate director under Purdy, has been named interim director of the observatory.

Purdy says that one of his goals as executive vice president is to raise the public profile of science and engineering at Columbia. The University, he points out, is experiencing dramatic growth in these areas. For instance, the University recently opened the Northwest Corner Building, a facility for biologists, chemists, physicists, and engineers who work together on interdisciplinary projects (see related story on page 40). Columbia also began construction last year on the Jerome L. Greene Science Center in Manhattanville. Here, neuroscientists and researchers from a wide variety of other disciplines will collaborate — as part of the University’s Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative — to study how the brain’s mechanisms relate to high-level functions such as memory, language, and emotion.

“I think Columbia is a heck of a lot stronger in science and engineering today than most people realize,” says Purdy, whose own research has focused on the structure and dynamics of the Earth’s crust beneath the ocean. “Part of my job is to get the word out about the profound impact our research is having on society. I also hope this will translate into donations. We need to raise money to hire more faculty for these programs and to build new physical facilities.”

Purdy also wants to foster new collaborations. “My responsibilities stretch across the University’s medical center, its engineering school, and its basic science departments, and I want to help these units work together more effectively to take advantage of a growing number of interdisciplinary research opportunities,” he says. “We’re going to make sure we continue to improve all of the core science and engineering departments, which, of course, are the foundation of any interdisciplinary science research we do.”

As executive vice president for research, Purdy succeeds David Hirsh, who held the post since it was created in 2003. Hirsh, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, is returning to Columbia’s medical center to pursue his own research.

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