M.J. Soileau:

Here’s What I Think

Dr. M.J. Soileau, Office of Research and Commercialization

M.J. Soileau:

Here’s What I Think

People drive progress. Visionary, resolute, charismatic, committed people. And the 50-year history of UCF is peppered with the names of men and women who persevered against rattlesnakes and anonymity to make this one of the finest institutions of higher education in the country. M.J. Soileau, vice president of UCF’s Office of Research and Commercialization, is one of those people.

A Louisiana sharecropper’s son who hoed cotton to pay for college, Dr. Soileau has been instrumental in UCF’s exponential growth in sponsored research, all the while working, as he says, “to create an environment far better than the one I would be recruited into.”

Under Soileau’s leadership, research funding increased from $36.6 million in 1998 to an accumulated $1.2 billion since 2000. Just as important, UCF, a recent recipient of the Carnegie Foundation’s top classification, has made its mark commercializing technology, stimulating the local economy, and helping to establish a strong concentration of companies in optics and lasers, simulation and training, computer science, alternative energy and biomedical sciences.

On the day we met with Soileau, however, he was faced with a different type of challenge. Someone had left the coffeemaker on overnight, and the esteemed professor, a fellow of the Optical Society of America and the International Society for Optics and Photonics, was scraping charred coffee grounds from the bottom of the pot. Despite his self-proclaimed reputation for being a grouch, Soileau was remarkably personable and shared his thoughts on a range of subjects, from UCF’s growing reputation to his beloved South Louisiana roots.

A Louisiana sharecropper’s son who hoed cotton to pay for college, Dr. Soileau has been instrumental in UCF’s exponential growth in sponsored research, all the while working, as he says, “to create an environment far better than the one I would be recruited into.”

Under Soileau’s leadership, research funding increased from $36.6 million in 1998 to an accumulated $1.2 billion since 2000. Just as important, UCF, a recent recipient of the Carnegie Foundation’s top classification, has made its mark commercializing technology, stimulating the local economy, and helping to establish a strong concentration of companies in optics and lasers, simulation and training, computer science, alternative energy and biomedical sciences.

On the day we met with Soileau, however, he was faced with a different type of challenge. Someone had left the coffeemaker on overnight, and the esteemed professor, a fellow of the Optical Society of America and the International Society for Optics and Photonics, was scraping charred coffee grounds from the bottom of the pot. Despite his self-proclaimed reputation for being a grouch, Soileau was remarkably personable and shared his thoughts on a range of subjects, from UCF’s growing reputation to his beloved South Louisiana roots.

These are his words.

ON UCF’S PROGRESS

In 50 years, UCF has gone from a commuter school to a destination school; from a university that accepted anyone to admissions selectivity; and from very few living on campus to 10,000 students experiencing campus life.

Other examples of UCF’s progress include the opening of the Student Union and on-campus stadium. The College of Medicine elevated our standing in the academic community. And through the UCF Business Incubation Program, people from the local community are seeking our assistance.

ON RESEARCH

Research makes UCF a different kind of place, even for people not taking part in the research. It changes the atmosphere and the way we teach. Where there is research, there are scholars doing leading-edge work; as a result, UCF has attracted Nobel laureates to campus.

The core of a university has to be the creation of new knowledge. It’s not a continuation of high school; the student experience is different, it’s the level of intellectual inquiry, and people here are challenging the status quo.

ON ORLANDO

We weave ourselves into the community … even when it comes to research. UCF is part of the economic fabric of the community. We teach students to create knowledge and make sure that knowledge gets into the economy.

ON LISTENING

[Nobel Prize-winning physicist] Charlie Townes told me, “M.J., you’ve got to have people who are doggedly trying to do something new.” That was good advice.

ON MOTIVATION

You can’t control faculty. You must create an environment where faculty can thrive and allow them to do their own thing. You’ll never make them work as hard as they make themselves work.

“Curiosity is a faculty member’s greatest asset.”

ON INNOVATION

If UCF focused research solely on industry collaborations, our research funding would spiral to nothing. We need faculty that create and innovate, that start their own research and companies.

ON COMPETITION

Competition is fierce for research funding. Each UCF entry goes up against the nation’s top universities, like Michigan, Stanford and Princeton, for example.

ON REPUTATION

The level of attention skyrockets when a group is deciding whether to spend money on you. And among organizations such as the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research, UCF is a well-respected name.

ON LESS IS MORE

It was a conscious decision to have specific areas of research focus. But we needed to concentrate on areas that are important to the regional and state economy: optics, lasers, simulation and training.

ON DEFINING MOMENTS

In the mid-1980s, the Florida High Technology and Industry Council, led by captains of industry under Florida Gov. Bob Graham, formed five centers of excellence. UCF got two — the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL) and the Institute for Simulation and Training. The University of Florida, University of South Florida and Florida State University each got one.

Guess how many of those centers of excellence still exist today? Just two — ours.

ON SPENDING MILLIONS

When your project is first funded, you’re flush with cash. With millions of dollars, one can get distracted … and use it for a variety of immediate goals instead of what it was intended for. But we just kept spending it where it was meant to be spent. That’s why our programs are still thriving.

ON A BETTER PLAN

Florida’s strategy for growing the economy has traditionally been to lure businesses away from New York and California with warm weather and lower taxes. I say, better than moving companies here, let’s grow them here.

ON HELPING SMALL BUSINESS

Today we have 140 businesses in the UCF Business Incubation Program. In addition, about 90 businesses have graduated from the program and more than 3,100 jobs have been created.

“Incubation, partnership and entrepreneurship: we were into this before it became cool.”

ON HELPING THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES

The Florida High Tech Corridor Council, of which we are a founding member, provides matching funds for projects funded by industry. Our percentage of industry funding is about four times the national average. This is a very good way to encourage faculty-industry engagement.

ON GOOD COMPANY

In 2012, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers ranked UCF among the top 20 universities worldwide based on the strength of patent portfolios. We’re up there with MIT, Cornell and Georgia Tech. I think that’s pretty darn good company, don’t you?

ON SOUTH LOUISIANA’S FAMOUS PORK AND RICE SAUSAGE

Where I come from in Louisiana, everyone thinks they know where to get the best boudin. I am still on a quest to find the best.

$1.2 billion in research funding over the past 12 years (2001-12)