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Community Voices: USF hones vision for St. Pete campus, seeks community support

Caryn Nesmith

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The Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences will build on the world-class reputation of the College of Marine Science (pictured) and connect it with multiple other colleges and schools across USF. Photo: University of South Florida.

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In November 2020, USF revealed plans to promote the St. Petersburg campus’ distinctive identity through five “academic clusters” or priority areas: environmental and oceanographic sciences, STEM education,  visual and performing arts, blue/green business and health sciences. 

As a liaison to the St. Petersburg community, part of my job is to help keep the public informed as we make progress toward these goals. The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership convened community leaders last June for an initial progress report. But now I’m excited to describe how the university is doubling down on St. Petersburg with the creation of an Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences. The thematic emphasis on our blue planet builds on the world-class reputation of the College of Marine Science (CMS) and connects it with multiple other colleges and schools across USF to offer an array of new interdisciplinary undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs that address the complex challenges of coastal resiliency, sustainability and economic vitality.

For the first time ever, USF is making the St. Petersburg campus the focus of its top legislative request. The university is seeking at least $30 million from the Florida legislature this year as part of the $80 million needed to create the Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research & Teaching Facility. 

This proposed building, which will overhaul and add to the current CMS facility, will also house the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation. The hub was funded last year under the governor’s Resilient Florida plan and will be the base of expertise in coastal resiliency for the entire state of Florida, with scalable impact for coastal communities nationwide.

“The Center of Excellence will be a national destination for researchers and students focused on the blue/green economy. It will attract excellent students, world-class professors, investment, and it will be globally recognized,” USF President Rhea Law told the St. Petersburg City Council in early November.  

“The center will be comprised of a constellation of programs, reaching across disciplines to answer some of the greatest challenges of our day including how we adapt to the realities of climate change, sea level rise and other environmental hazards,” according to CMS Dean Tom Frazer. 

The Center will serve as a catalyst for interdisciplinary programming and engage academic units across the campus and the broader USF landscape including in geosciences and engineering. The location is ideal because the campus is already embedded in a hotbed of marine science expertise, with neighbors that include the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal and Marine Science Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s regional office, the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and the Florida Institute of Oceanography all nearby. 

“There is also the Innovation District, the Downtown Partnership, the Chamber, and the City. All of these entities are helping to foster the ecosystem and create business opportunities in the communities that can be leveraged,” Frazer said. 

While marine science will be at the nucleus of the Center of Excellence, Martin Tadlock, Regional Chancellor at the USF St. Petersburg campus, added that it also includes the other academic priorities. 

“STEM education, business, the arts and health sciences are all existing strong programs in St. Petersburg with strengths and we are investing in those areas in a way that creates synergies” Tadlock said. “We are hiring in alignment with this greater vision.” 

Work toward realizing the center is already underway. As examples: 

  • Two new faculty positions in environmental chemistry housed on the St. Pete campus as part of the department of chemistry will align closely with the marine chemistry group at CMS. 
  • The College of the Arts and CMS are working together to recruit a Data Visualization Specialist. 
  • Two new Journalism and Digital Communications hires are focused on science journalism and communication. 

In requesting state funds, the university needs resounding and collective community support for this initiative. Accordingly, the St. Petersburg City Council has said it will write a resolution endorsing the legislative request for the Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research & Teaching Facility. The St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership have included it in their legislative priorities for the year. 

And I invite our community to consider this a call to action: Tell your legislator you value a strong research focused center of excellence in St. Petersburg that will respond to the most challenging issues of our time. 

Caryn Nesmith is director of community relations at USF, a position jointly funded by the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, the St. Petersburg Innovation District, the City of St. Petersburg and USF. This is a series focused on USF and its role in our community, serving to strengthen the prosperity of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. You can contact Caryn at carynn@usf.edu.

 

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