May 7, 2008 edition

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Tar Heel Bus Tour

A crash course might be a poor choice of words to describe a classroom on wheels.

But that is exactly what the Tar Heel Bus Tour has been during the past decade for hundreds of newly arrived faculty members and administrators, and what it will be again when the tour his the road May 12–16 for the 11th class of passengers.

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Johns

To lead requires being out front. But being a leading public university, Andy Johns has learned, means something slightly different.

For Carolina, being out front creates an opportunity to show others a better way. And it is out of that tradition that the idea of sharing the University-grown RAMSeS (Research Administration Management System and e-Submission) emerged.

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Cox

In a classroom in Wilson Library, Robert Cox pauses to update his class about the sudden disintegration of a massive Antarctic ice shelf.

Raising his eyebrows, he gestures animatedly in front of satellite images depicting a slab of ice the size of Connecticut crumbling into the ocean.

With passion in his voice, he adopts a preacher- like rhythm that suggests that some of his words are italicized: “The physics of it are so uncertain and unstudied that we cannot model how quickly this will break down.” He is referring to scientists’ projections about how global warming will affect the rest of the ice.

Cox has good reason to be passionate about the collapse of Antarctic ice. In addition to teaching a course about global warming in the communication studies department, he is president of the board of directors of the Sierra Club.

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Read the Gazette's insert honoring recipients of the 2008 University Teaching Awards, the highest campuswide recognition for teaching excellence. It is available as html with color photos (file.5.html) or as a pdf.

 

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Online research management tool benefits Carolina, entire state

To lead requires being out front. But being a leading public university, Andy Johns has learned, means something slightly different.

Johns

Andy Johns led the development and implementation of RAMSeS.

For Carolina, being out front creates an opportunity to show others a better way. And it is out of that tradition that the idea of sharing the University-grown RAMSeS (Research Administration Management System and e-Submission) emerged.

Johns, assistant vice chancellor for research and director of Information Systems and Management, has led the development and implementation of RAMSeS, the Office of Research Information Systems’ online research management tool. The University began to use RAMSeS to replace Coeus, a grant management program developed by MIT, in the summer of 2006.

Over the past two years, RAMSeS has been integrated throughout campus and has become the electronic linchpin connecting the entire research enterprise at Carolina. It is now used to handle all aspects of the research process, from grants management to compliance and clinical trials management to intellectual property management.

And in recent months, University leaders have decided to share RAMSeS with other universities, starting with the sister campuses within the UNC system. That process is already under way at UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Charlotte and North Carolina A&T, Johns said, and it will be completed throughout the entire UNC system by September 2009. Carolina is also sharing RAMSeS with Ohio State University and plans to share it with the University of Arizona and the eight universities that comprise the University of Tennessee system.

“There are many ways that Carolina can be a leading public university,” Johns said. “This is just one more way.”

At the January meeting of the University Board of Trustees, Chancellor James Moeser recognized Johns for his contributions toward this seminal achievement.

But Johns is not simply being modest when he says the accolades directed at him make him uncomfortable. Though appreciated, he said, singling him out conveys the false impression that he was the only person doing the work that has made RAMSeS such a success.

“Building an effective team has been critical for all this to happen, and I really want to acknowledge all the rest of the team who are a part of this,” Johns said.

The search for a solution

Johns is also quick to acknowledge that the idea for this did not come to him all at once, but through a process of discovery that revealed in fits and starts what the possibilities might be.

Less than a decade ago, campus research offices had no way to interact electronically, which made it difficult to share information. Most processes used to share information were done by hand, with paper, and were painstakingly slow, he said.

Coeus, the software system introduced at Carolina in 1999, was once billed as the grant management software program that would push Carolina’s research enterprise into the electronic age.

But by 2005, Johns had become convinced that Coeus, because of its inflexible format, was not up to the task. And he also understood that any software program offered by any other national vendor would likely be inadequate, too. He may have been in the best position to know.

That’s because, the year before, Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Studies Tony Waldrop hired Johns to run the newly created Office of Research Information Systems.

As director of the office, Johns’ mission was to design and implement the tools needed to create a unified business process for research administration. That process had to be capable not only of supporting all the offices on campus that had direct ties to research, but also of supporting the many faculty and staff who transact business with those same offices, Johns said.

The confidence to build such a system from scratch was predicated on some of Johns’ past successes since he started work here in fall 1998, the summer after he graduated from Carolina.

After spending two years working for Information Technology Services, Johns was hired as the director of operations for the Office of Technology Transfer, where he was charged with tracking all the University-developed research that could be marketed in the private sector.

Even then, Waldrop began calling on Johns for his technical expertise. First, Johns improved the capacity of the information management system used for the care of laboratory animals — an action prompted by allegations leveled against the University by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). He also was tasked with designing a system that could address the various security challenges related to research that emerged after 9/11.

And from this track record of success came the impetus to develop RAMSeS, which over the past two years has proven itself up to the many tasks it was created to perform.

As an electronic management system, RAMSeS not only saves time by centralizing research data, it can also automatically route internal processing form paperwork everywhere it needs to go in the proper sequence — and keep researchers abreast of its progress.

RAMSeS centralizes data so that research administration knows what the institution as a whole is doing, Johns said, and it has become quicker and easier to catch any compliance errors.

Its user-friendly one-click options guide users through the proposal process, such as create new proposal, checklists and a submit button that lets users know when they are through.

RAMSeS features a Web portal that allows investigators and research administrators to review all the research they are associated with and get project status updates. They are also able to view the details of a grant proposal or clinical trial.

Beware of pitfalls

Johns said another strength of RAMSeS is its infinite adaptability. At a growing, complex research university like Carolina, systems will continually need to be tailored to meet emerging needs.

Good technology, Johns said, is built on the platform of good communication between people, or in this instance, between IT specialists who understand RAMSeS and the researchers and administrators who depend on it.

“You can take the best software in the world and give it to any entity and the software by itself isn’t going to solve whatever problems it has,” Johns said. “You begin to solve problems by a detailed analysis of a business process. The software is nothing more than the tool that allows you to implement the process.”

This need for communication and adaptability made it very difficult for a national vendor to come up with a one-size-fits-all information management system. As Carolina continues to share RAMSeS with more and more campuses, Johns is keenly aware that Carolina must not overreach or overpromise. If national vendors were not able to meet the needs of the entire academic research market, Carolina must avoid going down the same path.

It must also balance the value of serving the state with the idea of sharing the system with competing institutions nationwide. That issue was addressed by sharing the model with campuses within the UNC system first.

By sharing this management platform within the UNC system and aggregating the research data from all 17 campuses, state leaders will be better able to showcase the breadth of research expertise that North Carolina offers.

This platform also lends itself to the regional approaches to economic development that UNC President Erskine Bowles has sought through the UNC Tomorrow initiative. At the same time, RAMSeS will make it easier for universities in the UNC system to seek the kind of interdisciplinary and inter-institutional grants that funding agencies want.

When RAMSeS is shared with universities from outside the state, he said, it is reasonable to expect the University to make money. It is no less reasonable to expect that Carolina use those revenues to continue to subsidize and enhance the operations here.

It all goes back to being a leading public university, Johns said. Carolina’s mission is not to make money; it is to make a difference. And for Johns, being able to make that kind of difference is the reason he is here.

 

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