New VPR Dorhout Sees Bright Future for Iowa State Research Team
On Jan. 25, 2021, Peter Dorhout began his tenure as the new Vice President for Research at Iowa State University. When he came to Ames – after serving in the same role at Kansas State University – he brought with him a number of passions that, frankly, are probably not all that dissimilar to those his counterparts at other universities bring to their positions:
- A passion for servant leadership that Dorhout traces back to his days as an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America, which he nurtured and grew in his roles as a vice provost at Colorado State University and as the dean of Arts and Sciences and, later, as the VPR at Kansas State.
- A passion for the physical sciences – chemistry, in particular – that is reflected in Dorhout’s academic background: a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois; a Ph. D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and a postdoc from Iowa State and the U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory.
- A passion for creative outlets: Dorhout is an accomplished woodworker (more on that later), which even provides a channel for applying his chemistry skills.
There is one passion, however, that likely sets Dorhout apart from many of his colleagues at AAU and APLU institutions: hockey. Dorhout played hockey in high school growing up in New Jersey, but, he admitted with a chuckle, “I wasn’t competent enough to play in college.” Undeterred, he continued indulging his passion by playing in intramural and adult recreational leagues, including a stint as goaltender for the Webster City team in the Ames rec league while doing his postdoc at Ames Lab, 1989 through 1991.
Interestingly, Dorhout sees many parallels between his one-time avocation as a hockey net minder, and his full-time vocation as VPR.
“The goaltender has to pay close attention to every facet of the game,” he said. “They have to be aware of every player’s position and capabilities. They have to see the entire ice – the big picture – and not just the immediate situation in front of them. Similarly, as the VPR and a leader at the university, I have to learn and understand the individual strengths each ‘skater’ has, and nurture those strengths to help deliver successful outcomes. Goalies can’t win games by themselves and neither can forwards or defensive players. It’s the same with research at a university like Iowa State: We can be great individuals, but we can’t win by ourselves; we all have to work together as a team to achieve the level of success we want to experience as an institution.”
In the interview that follows, Dorhout shares his perceptions of Iowa State after his first few weeks on the job, along with his priorities for the research enterprise at the university.
Q: What did you find most compelling about the VPR opportunity at Iowa State?
A: “Iowa State has an excellent reputation and it’s one I have appreciated since I came to the university and Ames Lab as a postdoc in 1989. At the other universities I’ve worked for (Colorado State and Kansas State), I always viewed Iowa State as an aspirational peer. During those years I had many opportunities to work with previous VPR Sarah Nusser and members of her outstanding leadership team on a number of really compelling projects. Beyond the university’s reputation and outstanding people, I was drawn to Iowa State because the research is on a strong upward trajectory, and the work being done here is really making an impact in the Grand Challenge areas of global sustainability, healthy lives and contributing to vibrant societies.
Q: What were your perceptions of research at Iowa State prior to joining the university and how do those perceptions compare to the reality now that you’re here?
A: “In my previous roles, I had the opportunity to work with and help launch programs like the National Institute for Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education (NIAMRRE) as well as the Coalition for Epi Response Engagement and Science (CERES) that are dedicated to agricultural biosecurity and biodefense. Through these experiences, my perception was that Iowa State comprises some really outstanding people, and I’ve certainly found that to be true in my early days on the job. Because of the homework I did to prepare for the interviews, I also came here with the perception that Iowa State has a lot of strengths and opportunities for growth beyond the fundamental and applied sciences and engineering, that have always been strengths for the university. I came here feeling that innovation and entrepreneurship and initiatives around global sustainability are key strengths and important growth opportunities, and nothing I’ve seen or experienced in these first few weeks has changed that perception.”
Q: What are your top priorities for your first year in the VPR role?
A: “Even with my previous experiences and interactions, there’s still so much to learn about Iowa State and its research culture. I’m spending my first three months listening and learning about what’s happening here. I’d love to do it face-to-face, or wander through people’s research spaces, to get to know people a little more directly, but – of course – the pandemic makes that difficult. The reality is you can’t begin to address the challenges that I know exist here until you learn to understand what matters to people, and that’s done through listening. Another priority is building trust with the faculty and staff. In my last VPR role, I focused my team on customer service. Our operations in the Office of the Vice President for Research are outstanding, but every organization can benefit from being honed and focused on providing key customer service in the areas for which we have leadership oversight. These areas are really interrelated, and if accomplished, I think we can make a difference in the success of all researchers here at the university.”
Q: What is your vision for the role of research at Iowa State?
A: “Research is something that sets Iowa State apart from other higher education institutions. Graduate and undergraduate students who choose Iowa State have access to excellence. While it may not be part of everyone’s experience, every student has the opportunity to be involved in research and scholarly work if they so choose. They can work on solving global problems today, and generate new knowledge today, or they can create new things in partnership with our world-renowned faculty. While doing this, they can learn how to work on a team, communicate complex topics, and even learn how to translate research outcomes into a business. Research is a critical component in the higher education innovation ecosystem, and we must continue to support a vibrant research environment that attracts outstanding students and faculty.”
Q: How can the VPR and university senior administration build our resources to support research and scholarship with the current financial challenges facing higher education and state and federal agencies?
A: “That’s really the 64,000 – or 64 million-dollar – question these days. University leaders are in an important position to be able to explore different investment strategies and to proactively engage federal and state agencies in their planning for supporting research, rather than just reacting to where these agencies decide they want to put their resources. As university leaders, we have to be involved in the early stages to help frame the conversations that shape budgeting decisions at both the federal and state levels. If we’re successful in doing this, it will give us a stronger position and help us be more competitive in attracting funding. And in those areas of strength for our university – like research around global sustainability – supporting team research to ensure everyone who wants to participate in the research enterprise feels invited to do so is critical for broadening our access to funding.”
Q: What is your vision for making Iowa State a more attractive collaborator to industry and corporate research partners?
A: “It’s really important that we identify and nurture strategic corporate partnerships. While individual relationships between a researcher and a company – or an alumna or alumnus that works at a company – are important, a strategic and successful partnership is one that extends beyond a one-person relationship. A strategic partnership is one in which the barriers to success in working with a company have been removed to enable the talent at the university to seamlessly collaborate with the talent at the company to address the short-term and long-term needs of both. It’s about establishing true relationships that are mutually beneficial to both parties instead of a simple exchange of information or resources. And, these relationships can take many forms. For instance, they can be based on philanthropy for those companies that want to support student scholarships, or they can be more directly market-oriented for those companies that want to license new technologies generated at the university.”
Q: How do the Arts and Humanities fit into the research mission at Iowa State, and how can Arts and Humanities faculty expect you to support their scholarly pursuits?
A: “Scholarly research is valued by this university, whether done independently or in conjunction with students who are members of a research team. As a former dean of arts and sciences, I’ve developed a keen interest in advancing the arts and humanities. These disciplines are critical for ensuring a diverse campus research community, but they also play a critical role in maintaining vibrant societies and their insights into the human condition are integral to advancing our research in the global Grand Challenges.”
Q: What do you believe are the greatest assets you bring to Iowa State in your role as VPR?
A: “Many of the assets I bring to Iowa State are those from my previous experiences. For instance, I’m data-driven by nature because of my background as a scientist and faculty member. I have experience collaborating with national laboratories based on 20 years as an independent researcher. And I’ve honed my leadership skills through roles as a new program director, faculty senate committee leader, graduate dean, dean of a college and then my previous five years as vice president for research and economic development. Beyond these experiences, though, the real key to my success at Iowa State will be my ability to build and nurture relationships and ultimately build trust with my colleagues here at the university.”
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: “I see myself as a collaborative servant leader who listens. My focus will be on building a team of experts, enabling their success and professional development, and advancing not only the folks on the VPR team, but also the faculty, students and staff across the university.”
Q: On a personal note, what would the Iowa State community be surprised to learn about Peter Dorhout?
A: “I no longer get to channel my creativity in the chemistry laboratory, so these days I actually channel my creativity through woodworking. I’ve had pieces in juried shows and provided public outreach demonstrations of woodworking and wood turning. For me it’s an important creative outlet, and I enjoy working on chemical formulations of finishes and trying to really bring out the beauty of wood.”
Q: Please complete this sentence: “I will consider my tenure as VPR at Iowa State a success if . . .”
A: “In the near-term, my tenure will be a success if I can figure out how to properly use Zoom and WebEx and Teams and . . .In all seriousness, I’ll consider my tenure as VPR at Iowa State a success if Iowa State is regularly recognized as a global research leader across a broad spectrum of areas that address key challenges to achieving a sustainable world. Employers who seek out Iowa State grads based on their experiences in creative endeavors in the research enterprise will be another key measure of success. Finally, my goal is for Iowans – especially elected officials – to view Iowa State as a critical asset, an engine of innovation, to Iowa’s success and prosperity.”