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Saunders sees education as major player in business, development

The University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM’s) president, Dr. Martha Dunagin Saunders, is busy promoting business and technology interests at the Hattiesburg-based school where she is the first female president.

Being a first is nothing new for Saunders. At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, she served as the first female chancellor. There she brought the campus together with an inclusive strategic planning process, hosted a successful Higher Learning Commission re-accreditation review and finalized plans for major building projects totaling $110 million.

The Mississippi native also served as vice president at Columbus State University in Columbus, Ga., and held the position of dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of West Florida where she had already earned the rank of tenured professor of communication and served as director of the University Honors Program.

Last week, Saunders took time from her schedule to answer several business-related questions for the Mississippi Business Journal.

Mississippi Business Journal: How much emphasis are you putting on USM’s involvement with economic development?

Martha D. Saunders: Economic development is a significant part of our mission. There are many ways that we approach this. One, we try to make a significant contribution toward the development of human capital and the quality of life in Mississippi. Two, the research enterprise itself is a major “business” in our university, averaging $100 million per year over the last two years. Three, through our programs in research, we are always seeking to create new knowledge bases that can either attract companies to our state, assist existing companies with their problems or start new businesses.

MBJ: Is the university’s role in development changing, and if so, in what ways?

MDS: Much of our focus is on innovation-led economic development. Research turns money into knowledge. Innovation turns that knowledge into money. Look at Hybrid Plastics, a local nano-materials company that relocated to Mississippi from California and has employed a number of our Ph.D. polymer science graduates.

We believe the success story at Hybrid can be repeated again and again. With the opening of the National Formulation Science Laboratory in our Innovation and Commercialization Park, we will have a tool for attracting more companies like Hybrid to Mississippi.

MBJ: What is USM’s involvement with the area’s emerging technology?

MDS: Southern Miss is working with a number of emerging technologies, including those in the areas of high-performance materials, marine aquaculture and hydrographic/ocean observation systems. In each case, we have a continuum of involvement from basic research to commercialization.

MBJ: Are there any changes in the university’s Department of Economics, Finance and International Business that reflect the move to a global economy and a rapidly changing technology?

MDS: Our faculty in the Department of Economics, Finance and International Business in the College of Business are always working to advance the economic condition of the state and also to equip our students with the skills they’ll need to be successful in a global economy.

MBJ: The polymer program at USM has been a leader in changing technology. Is that leadership continuing?

MDS: In the global competition of today, you have to constantly re-invent yourself. As we add bright, young faculty in the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials we are doing just that.

Working with the ship building industry, polymer science and engineering have just rolled out a major initiative in marine composites with the help of an $8.2-million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Our researchers are working to create what could be the world’s foremost knowledge base for the next generation of ship building materials through a national matrix composites research and development center.

We have been selected to compete for renewal of our Materials Engineering Research Center by the National Science Foundation. This center supports basic research in “smart” materials. We have some other DoD-related research efforts which are very exciting. Our Mississippi Polymer Institute will be occupying space in the first building now underway in the Innovation and Commercialization Park in Hattiesburg.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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