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NMSU Drives Economic Impact

By Darrell J. Pehr

NMSU research has substantial impact on state’s economy

When a Roosevelt County farmer tugs a peanut plant from the rich soil in eastern New Mexico, there’s really no question the plant was successfully grown thanks in part to research developed by New Mexico State University.

When an entrepreneur builds a business and creates jobs in New Mexico, that success, too, is a direct benefit of the support, guidance and solutions provided by the university’s Arrowhead Center at the very beginning, when the business was simply a good idea surrounded by a sea of questions.

And when Spaceport America opens the door to the commercialization of space, it’s a good bet NMSU researchers will be working hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs and others, making sure the fledgling commercial space industry across southern New Mexico has the research-based knowledge it needs to transform the ideas of today into the success story of tomorrow.

NMSU has played a key role in the economic development of the state for more than 100 years. Not long after the establishment of the university in 1888, Professor Fabian Garcia and others began to see the strides they were making in the laboratories and fields on campus translate into real economic benefits for the farmers of the Mesilla Valley and beyond. Garcia, well-known for his work in the development of chile, also made significant progress in onion and pecan research, and, as the first director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, created a template for research-based economic development that cemented NMSU’s role of conducting research that greatly benefits the agricultural industry.

Now, some 100 years later, NMSU’s role in creating economic opportunity has spread across the state and beyond. Recent accomplishments include the Federal Aviation Administration’s selection of the university to lead a new Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. A partnership of academia, industry and government, the center will create a consortium whose purpose will be to meet the challenges ahead for commercial space transportation. The center’s research and development focus is on space launch operations and traffic management; launch vehicle systems, payloads, technologies and operations; commercial human space flight; and space commerce.

Grad Student Ambica Pegallapati

Engineering graduate student Ambica Pegallapati, right, and civil engineering professor Nirmala Khandan examine an algae sample taken from an algal raceway reactor at NMSU’s Fabian Garcia Science Center.

“We are at the forefront of a new era in transportation in our country,” said Pat Hynes, executive director of the center and director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium. “The awarding of the FAA Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation will make New Mexico the magnet for commercial space in the nation and the world. This is the first major investment in the commercial space industry by the federal government, and the FAA chose New Mexico as the place to grow this industry.”

The 25th president of the university, Barbara Couture, made it clear during her inauguration last fall that NMSU’s role as an economic engine would be a priority during her time as president, stating the university must “be the economic engine for New Mexico through linking and strengthening our research and economic development partnerships.”

That goal is one of seven she outlined as part of the university’s initiative to create “A New Era of Excellence through Partnerships.”

One element of that goal was implemented during the fall 2010 semester: a new tradition of celebrating each major research accomplishment. The university’s first “Research Rally” was celebrated Dec. 3 in recognition of a $2.3 million grant from the Air Force Research Laboratory that will support university research into the development of aviation fuel made from algae. The project is part of the university’s new Algal Bioenergy Program, which guides the university-wide research and economic development opportunities related to algae-based biofuels.

“The communities we serve do need to know how committed New Mexico State University is to advancing excellent research at this institution and how important that is to the development of this state and, frankly, to the development of our nation,” Couture said. “We are very proud of our researchers and we are extremely proud of our partnerships. Our research partnerships are already at the top of our list, among our most successful ventures.”

“The Research Rallies are intended to inform the community about the exciting research that is happening right here at New Mexico State University,” said NMSU Vice President for Research Vimal Chaitanya, “and how it actually affects their own lives, in more ways than one, how this research impacts the economic development of the state, how it creates new jobs and how it grows existing jobs in the areas in which we already are active.”

The university has an enormous impact on the economy of the state, not only because of its status as a major employer in southern New Mexico and at its community college campuses, but also through the funding it attracts, primarily from federal agencies, to conduct critical research. The university’s current annual research portfolio of grants and contracts has blossomed to almost $200 million, the largest in history. A 2010 Arrowhead Center study found that expenditures as a result of research activity at the university have a combined impact of more than $288 million on the economy.

NMSU’s research efforts span a wide spectrum, from high-tech to traditional.

The frontiers of unmanned flight are being explored just outside Las Cruces, where NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory operates the only FAA-approved Unmanned Aerial Systems testing space in the nation, with 15,000 square miles of airspace in which to operate. The UAS Flight Test Center was recently the site of the first flight ever in the National Airspace System of a solar-powered unmanned aircraft, the SunLight Eagle.

A recent National Science Foundation Major Research Implementation award of $1.68 million is going toward development of a reduced gravity simulator that can be used in astronaut training and biomechanics research. Ou Ma, professor in the College of Engineering’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, is leading a multi-disciplinary team of investigators in the four-year project.

Ongoing study of New Mexico’s historic acequia systems led to a $1.4 million NSF award last fall that will support multi-institutional research over five years. Led by Sam Fernald, NMSU associate professor of watershed management, the project will seek new insight into the relationships between traditional water management systems, communities and landscapes.

NSF funding is integral to the university’s research activities: the university is ranked third in the country among all universities in total and federal R&D expenditures at High Hispanic Enrollment Institutions.

The university also attracts significant funding to supplement educational opportunities for its students around the state. In fall 2010, New Mexico State University Carlsbad and New Mexico State University Alamogordo were awarded five-year grants from the Department of Education’s Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program. NMSU-Alamogordo and NMSU-Carlsbad will receive more than $600,000 a year each for five years, for a total award of more than $3 million per campus. The grants will fund activities such as faculty development, curriculum development, academic tutoring and mentoring and construction and renovation of instructional facilities. The grants also will allow the campuses to expand educational opportunities and improve the academic attainment of Hispanic students.

Whether it’s peanuts in a field, profits earned by a fledgling business or payloads in space, New Mexico State University is playing a key role in the economic activity of today and the economic development opportunities of tomorrow across New Mexico and beyond.

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