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Dawn Bonnell is an optimist.

Replacing Steven Fluharty as the new vice provost for research, Bonnell has been in her new position since July 1. Since then, she has been confronting what Provost Vincent Price calls a “challenging” environment for federally funded research due to a set of automatic spending cuts imposed by the government known as the sequester.

Bonnell oversees a sponsored research portfolio of over $800 million annually, which consists of any outside funds given to Penn for research, most of which are from federal sources that are being cut. Although she admits these cuts are likely to remain or even increase next year, she is “optimistic that once Congress can get to the point of making a budget, things will straighten out a bit for us.”

Now her “big priority” is improving Penn’s research commercialization efforts. One example is the plan for the South Bank — an area being redeveloped across the river — which is expected to “create a community around technology transfer and new ideas.”

She also notes that as the country slowly emerges from the recession, partnerships with corporations like DuPont are becoming more viable, especially since companies are more likely to outsource their research and development to appease shareholders. However, “there are sometimes challenges in trying to figure out mechanisms to partner that protects everybody’s interests,” such as the issue of intellectual property rights.

Bonnell’s appointment is unique in that she is the first woman in Penn’s history to occupy the role of vice provost for research, and her appointment makes what Price considers a “powerful statement about the role of women in STEM fields.” Bonnell agrees, saying her appointment is “important from the context of gender equity” due to the fact that women are not represented well in many science fields.

In addition to improving research funding, Bonnell is hoping to facilitate more interdisciplinary research between the various schools at Penn. She cites a possible think tank focused on energy and sustainability which would include faculty in the sciences, law and business as an example.

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and former Vice Provost of Research Steven Fluharty considers Bonnell “intrinsically multidisciplinary” in that she founded the Nano/Bio Interface Center, which brought together researchers from different schools. “She really knows how to engage different groups of faculty and students that come, frankly, from different cultures and unify them in pursuit of a common research area,” Fluharty said.

Bonnell also wants to enable Penn faculty to become more involved in research policy making, saying “We have these outstanding people, thought leaders, doing research in all these areas, and when we are nationally forming our directions … Penn people should be at the table.”

To Bonnell, the future of research at Penn is bright. When asked about the greatest challenges of being vice provost of research, she said, “I haven’t thought about this job as full of challenges. What I see are opportunities.”

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