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Tim Hernandez, associate professor of creative writing, is among the 10 faculty members at The University of Texas at El Paso selected to participate in the 2021-22 Faculty Development Leave program to work on projects that they normally could not do during an academic year. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Marketing and Communications

UTEP Faculty Use Leave to Write, Research, Network

For 10 years, Tim Z. Hernandez, associate professor of creative writing at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), has tried to squeeze in time to learn more about the doomed charter flight that carried 28 Mexican bracero workers to their deaths in 1948.

UTEP’s new Faculty Development Leave (FDL) program will give Hernandez and several other award-winning instructors from various fields the paid time off to work on research and books, but also to do things to enhance public higher education that they normally could not do during an academic year.

Hernandez plans to use his FDL during the spring 2022 semester to continue his investigation into this tragic story of the braceros, Mexican citizens who started to come to the U.S. legally during World War II for temporary work, mostly in agriculture. This additional research will help him produce a second manuscript about the incident and give him time to develop a creative writing/history course where students will learn how to turn a hands-on investigation into books or creative writing.

“As far as the University is concerned, I think (the FDL) is a great move, especially now as a tier one research institute,” Hernandez said. “This program will really allow the scholars who are teaching to immerse themselves even deeper into their work, which then translates to opportunities for our students to immerse themselves even deeper into that work. For me, that’s probably the biggest advantage.”

Along with Hernandez, the FDL awardees include Bruce Cushing, Ph.D., and Eli Greenbaum, Ph.D., professors of biological sciences; Josiah Heyman, Ph.D., professor of anthropology; Chu-Young Kim, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry – pharmacy; and Wen-Yee Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry. Also part of the cohort are Jorge Lopez, Ph.D., professor of physics; Oscar Macchioni, D.M.A., professor of music; Cristina Morales, Ph.D., professor of sociology; and Ana Schwartz, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology.

Some members of the 2021-22 cohort have started their full-year sabbaticals. Others, like Hernandez, will start their half-year retreats during the spring 2022 semester. The program offers different options for tenure-track and non-tenure track instructors to dedicate 100% of their work time to a focused academic interest that will enhance their abilities as educators and researchers and build opportunities for future collaborations with peers outside the Paso del Norte region.

Some participants’ plans include the development of piano compositions and new cognitive processes, as well as the continuation of joint inter-institutional research to unlock secrets into higher brain function, prostate cancer detection, the environment and politics on the border, the plasticity of proteins and artificial intelligence. Each effort comes with opportunities to establish networks at the foremost research institutions in the U.S. and beyond.

UTEP administrators see this program, which is overseen by the Office of the Provost, as an essential component to the institution’s growth as a top tier research university. The campus had an FDL program, but a budget crunch forced officials to set it aside several years ago. Institutional leaders resurrected the program this academic year with funds from the University’s general budget.

UTEP Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs John Wiebe, Ph.D., said that he and UTEP President Heather Wilson see the FDL as an important investment that will return dividends in grants, innovation, scholarship and faculty development, and he stressed the importance of building and cultivating professional networks.

“This is an opportunity to build relationships at major research universities, national labs and international institutions, and get a sense of how those organizations work from the inside,” Wiebe said.  “These networks are essential for advancing and disseminating the research and creative activity in which our faculty are engaged.

Chemistry professor Lee agreed that the FDL is an important long-term investment in faculty creativity and productivity. She said the University should consider a plan where faculty members could be eligible for a sabbatical every seven years of employment. Lee will conduct her half-year leave during the spring 2022 semester.

She plans to develop further her urinary metabolite model that can detect prostate cancer with over 90% accuracy – a rate higher than the current screening. She also will explore the entrepreneurship aspect of her work with collaborators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MDD (Medical Detection Dogs) UK to incorporate canine sense of smell and chemical analysis in prostate cancer detection, which aims to demonstrate how people can train dogs to recognize the odor from the urine of prostate cancer patients. Moreover, she will explore the commercial potential of her technology.

“I have participated in two regional I-CORPs programs in which I included three doctoral students in my group to learn about the commercialization aspect of our research,” Lee said. “My students not only learned about entrepreneurship, they also got to think about the greater impacts of their research on society and see the potential of their project. Using my FDL, I get to learn about building a start-up company and work closely with different talents to bring my research to the market. This kind of firsthand knowledge is the best curriculum that I can bring to my classroom.”

To her colleagues, Lee suggested that those selected for an FDL should use their time to cultivate creativity and “get out of their comfort zones.”

The University of Texas at El Paso will accept applications for UTEP’s second FDL cohort through Jan. 10, 2022. Faculty should contact Tami Keating, director of academic personnel in the Provost’s Office, for more program information at 915-747-6798 or tlkeating@utep.edu. The Provost’s Office expects to announce the next FDL recipients by early February 2022.

“I don’t think this kind of opportunity requires too much encouragement,” said Hernandez, the creative writing professor. “We’re all excited about the opportunities that this will provide for us and our careers and for our students.”

Click here to read more about the FDL program.

Author: Daniel PerezUTEP