Yousif Shamoo in his own words

Illustration by Darren Booth

How are stars formed? Why do I exist? How do atoms assemble into molecules and then into life itself? These are just a few of the questions Yousif Shamoo mulled over during his formative years in Kentucky and Connecticut. From a young age, he was fascinated with the natural world. One of his favorite pastimes was looking at a book about bugs and hunting for them in his backyard like treasure. “I absolutely love to learn,” he said. 

Shamoo’s passion for knowledge is what led him to pursue a career in academia and research, and it’s ultimately why he became Rice’s vice provost for research almost seven years ago. In this capacity, he spends a lot of time learning about the research that faculty, staff and students are interested in and want to pursue. Based on what he finds, Shamoo, with the help of President David Leebron and Provost Reginald DesRoches, shapes the strategic plan for the university’s research enterprise and how best to carry it out. 

Endless Supply of Ideas
People at Rice have enormous creativity, so there’s a huge number of ideas running around campus, most of which are good. The question is, how do you build on these ideas, how do you implement them, how do you actually make them happen? Over time, Rice has gotten very good at doing this and is on pace with becoming one of the world’s major research universities. This is great, except that we have to be able to support that growth and continue to make it easier for faculty, staff and students to be successful. That’s why making sure they have the right instrumentation, resources and operational support is so important and continues to be one of my main goals. 

At Rice, we all do some type of research. We might call it scholarship. We might call it research. To me, it’s the intellectual pursuit of ideas, whether it’s Shakespeare, music, architecture, computer science or bioengineering.

Dual Perspective
I came to my job originally with the mindset of both a professor and a researcher. I have been in academia now for more than 20 years, and although I don’t currently teach [Shamoo is a five-time Brown Teaching Award recipient], I still have an active research group studying the evolution of multidrug-resistant bacteria. I sit on the National Institutes of Health’s Health Genetic Variation and Evolution Study Section, and because of my background, I bring a very data-driven approach to my position. [Shamoo is ranked among some of our top faculty in terms of research funding.] I want to see ideas and test those ideas. And I’m very willing as an experimentalist to move on when things don’t work out. 

Interdisciplinary Approach
One of the most exciting things that’s changed on our campus over the last several years is that everything is becoming interdisciplinary. Twenty years ago, you could tell the difference between a physicist, a chemist and a mechanical engineer. Today, I’m not so sure that’s true. Look at machine learning. It essentially permeates every single discipline. Everything we do is in some way related to the materials we have to do them with, whether it’s the microscope in our labs or the computer we’re using to analyze big data. Rice really excels at interdisciplinary research. It’s something we can work with and take advantage of for the foreseeable future.

Across the Board
At Rice, we all do some type of research. We might call it scholarship. We might call it research. To me, it’s the intellectual pursuit of ideas, whether it’s Shakespeare, music, architecture, computer science or bioengineering. Historically, the emphasis of the Office of Research has been almost entirely on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

One of my first actions as vice provost of research was to broaden this definition to include all aspects of scholarly and creative works on campus. To put action to those words, we have set up creative venture funds to support disciplines outside of STEM such as music, architecture and the humanities. Just last year, I added a significant amount of funding to a creative venture fund dedicated to race and anti-racism. This kind of support will continue to grow, especially with the ongoing move toward interdisciplinary research. For example, with every advancement of technology, you have to understand the impact to society. I think we can do more in this space. It’s an open area of investigation that involves not just the people creating the technology, but economists, psychologists, social scientists and humanists as well. 

Crown Jewels
To continue to grow and become more visible on the global research stage, we have to continue to have centers of excellence like the Baker Institute, Rice 360°, OpenStax, the Shepherd School of Music and the Welch Institute for Advanced Materials. These are some of our crown jewels. Areas where I think we are ripe for growth and have significant opportunity include engineering, medicine and, of course, advanced materials. We want Houston to be the place to go for advanced materials, whether you are a scholar or a company. If we succeed at that, it’s a win for Rice and for the city of Houston. 

Continued Growth
What is most impressive is that we have continued to strengthen our research enterprise without sacrificing our educational mission. We have amazing undergraduate and graduate students. We’ve got excellent professors, many of whom teach, serve our research enterprise and hold leadership roles. Rice is a pretty special place in this way. 

Maintaining Momentum
Since COVID-19 reared its head over a year ago, research at Rice has moved forward and, for the most part, [the pandemic] hasn’t impacted our progress. We’ve continued to do very well in terms of securing funding for projects, and we’ve plowed ahead with work on existing projects despite the various safety constraints implemented on faculty, staff and students. With that said, I do worry about the emotional cost of the pandemic, especially on students. COVID-19 has changed the way we work. You can’t just sit outside, eat lunch next to your friends and freely exchange ideas, which means people aren’t learning as quickly and they are experiencing some level of social isolation. It’s like everybody’s working in an Antarctic ice station. We will eventually leave that metaphorical station, come back and recover, but it will take some time.