Since its founding in 1911, Southern Methodist University has earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence. This comprehensive research and teaching university, joined with an energetic city, creates an opportunity powerhouse where more than 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students learn and grow in a rigorous academic environment. Eight degree-granting schools elevate SMU to the top tier of national universities.
From community college student to university provost
Dr. Elizabeth Loboa became SMU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs in July 2020 – a challenging time as University leadership was balancing the demands of the still unfolding COVID-19 pandemic against the campus-wide commitment to deliver outstanding education and research. As the University’s chief academic officer, Loboa is responsible for the overall quality of teaching, scholarship and research, and all aspects of academic life on the campus, from admissions and faculty development to supervision of SMU’s eight schools, library system, and its international programs.
Under Loboa’s guidance, along with administrators, faculty and staff across the University, SMU delivered a high-quality academic experience in 2020-21 by adapting its learning environment to safely meet the needs of students through both in-class and remote instruction. At the same time, Loboa embraced as a personal challenge the goal of leading the University to Carnegie R1 research status, a designation that will place SMU among the nation’s top public and private research universities.
SMU is well on its way. Faculty research awards have increased by 84% since Loboa’s arrival. A collaboration with accelerated computing leader NVIDIA is dramatically boosting the University’s high-performance computing system and the research it supports, setting the stage for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning 25 times faster than current University levels. In addition, under her leadership, SMU has launched the Data Science Institute to spur interdisciplinary research across more than 10 graduate and undergraduate degree programs.
Programs to support underrepresented students are also growing under the direction of Loboa, an accomplished scholar who began her career in community college, working as a waitress to pay for her education. Having earned a doctorate in biomechanical engineering, Loboa served as the University of Missouri’s dean of the College of Engineering and vice chancellor of strategic partnerships before joining SMU. Recently, she received one of the highest honors that scientists award to their peers – she was named a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“SMU is a place that is really having an impact on the world,” says Loboa. “We are pursuing excellence in all that we do, and we won’t stop until we get there. We are training a generation of students who are going to change the world.”
A builder of bridges
In her role as SMU’s inaugural Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Maria Dixon Hall is always looking for teachable moments, particularly in times of crisis. A professor of corporate communications as well as an ordained Methodist minister, she was tapped in 2016 to develop SMU’s Cultural Intelligence Initiative – a broadly focused, non-traditional training program to teach skills needed to work, learn and live respectfully with individuals from different cultural backgrounds.
The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 put conversations about race under a microscope across the nation and on the campus. The response of SMU students to Floyd’s death, including sharing their own experiences with racism, made it clear the time was right for a larger University initiative. Dixon Hall was named Chief Diversity Officer, reporting directly to University President R. Gerald Turner, in August 2020.
In her new role, she is responsible for the strategic alignment of the University’s efforts to create a climate of inclusive excellence for all members of the SMU community. Dixon Hall coordinates a University Diversity Council that connects the missions of diversity officers representing each school and administrative unit. Overseeing the progress of a University action plan, Dixon Hall coordinates the administrative responses directed to improve the experience of Black faculty, staff and students.
Dixon Hall arrived at SMU in 2004 to teach corporate communication in the Meadows School of the Arts, and quickly became known for her passion for both teaching and research. She is the recipient of numerous academic awards, including the 2005-2006 Willis M. Tate Award for service to the student body and the “M” Award in 2011, SMU’s highest award for outstanding service to the university. Dixon Hall, however, says she is most proud of the accomplishments of her students: “When I watch my students handle advance work for the President and Vice President of the United States or create nonprofits that have global impact, that’s how I define success.”
Dixon Hall’s booming laugh and sense of humor are her trademarks, useful tools as she navigates the responsibilities of her highly visible and sometimes challenging position as Chief Diversity Officer. “In a world that is chaotic and full of conflict, I know I must approach people with compassionate grace and humor,” she says, adding that helping people learn to bridge the gap between racial, generational, political and other differences is her main focus these days.
“We are not perfect, but every day we are moving toward perfection — bridge by bridge.”
Dark matter and learning the value of failure
Dr. Jodi Cooley, professor of experimental particle physics, has devoted her research career to improving our understanding of the universe by making the nature of dark matter a bit less dark. Only a small fraction of the universe is made from visible matter. The mysterious, non-luminescent substance making up about 85% of the universe, dark matter is the “glue that holds our galaxy together,” she explains.
Cooley’s research took her into the deepest parts of Earth between 2003 and 2015, into subterranean labs where she and her colleagues operated sophisticated detectors in the Soudan Underground Laboratory in Minnesota. The Department of Energy and National Science Foundation is now funding construction of an even deeper location, SNOLAB in Canada, to improve the search of dark matter. Cooley will be one of the researchers at SNOLAB, using detectors that can distinguish between elusive dark matter particles and background particles that mimic dark matter interactions.
Over the course of her career, Cooley has received some of the highest awards scientists give to their peers, including being named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She won a prestigious $1 million National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award in 2012. However, she says her true calling is to encourage others to share her interest in science — and that starts with teaching.
Her greatest joy, Cooley says, is opening her lab to students and working with them to conduct their own original research. “When they succeed and accomplish something, I feel that I have accomplished something, too.”
Her love of research is paired with her dedication to making physics relevant and even fun. For example, on Dark Matter Day, on or around Oct. 31 every year, Cooley plants messages about dark matter on rocks around campus and organizes a hunt to find them, analyzes an action film or brings out a Slinky to make physics real for her students.
She shares her knowledge outside the academy in a variety of ways, such as discussing the nature of dark matter on the popular WNYC program, “Science Friday.” But this very successful scientist also takes time to share with her students and others the importance of failure, which she calls a necessary component for discovery and success — in life as well as the laboratory.
“We learn from these failures. We refine our hypotheses, improve our experiments and we try again,” Cooley says. “If you are working at the limits of your ability, failure is going to happen. Yet, if you never fail, you will never reach your full potential.”