A biweekly publication for faculty and staff
February 15, 2017

Academic Senate Focusing on Strengthening Research, Graduate Education

September 14, 2012

School of Natural Sciences Professor Peggy O'Day is serving this year as chair for the UC Merced Academic Senate. Panorama sat down with O'Day recently to find out about the Senate's goals for the year, her geochemistry research and if she has a good book to recommend.  

What are your main goals this year as chair of the Academic Senate?

Senate is working with administration this year to strengthen research and graduate education on our campus. As a research university, we need to make sure our academic programs and campus resources are appropriately directed toward the research mission of the campus.

This doesn't mean we intend to neglect our undergraduate programs. Rather, both graduate and undergraduate programs benefit from a world-class faculty pushing out the frontiers of research, and we need to take full advantage of our faculty talent. Senate leaders are examining how to expand our graduate programs, attract the best students from an international pool, and make sure that faculty and student research efforts across the campus are supported.

A second goal of the Senate is to strengthen shared governance and clarify governance processes in our schools and graduate groups, which will help support the first goal. Faculty participation in the running of the university – both delivering the academic programs and working with the administration on budget and management – is central to the University of California. Robust consultation between faculty and administration at all levels relies on clear structures and transparent processes for engagement and decision-making.

What are some of the Academic Senate’s biggest challenges?

I think everyone is aware of the severe budget cuts from the state to the University of California over the past five years. While other UC campuses have struggled with shrinking budgets, Merced has simply never received the full funding we needed to start and grow our campus. Our faculty and staff have been asked to do much more with much less. A major challenge of the Senate is to make sure that faculty are full participants in the academic governance of the university, and that we work effectively with the administration, while at the same time teaching, doing research and mentoring students. It's a lot to ask of everyone!

Please tell us a bit about your research focuses.

I study environmental geochemistry, primarily the reaction, transport and biogeochemical cycling of toxic elements such as arsenic, uranium and mercury. This work spills over into both practical applications such as novel approaches to soil remediation, and into the fundamental chemistry of reactions at the molecular and atomic scale. My research integrates laboratory experiments, spectroscopy, field studies and computations to understand reactions between contaminants, water, minerals and bacteria at the molecular scale, and how these reactions control contaminant chemistry and mobility at space and time scales relevant to field sites.

What’s something about you that people at work might not know?

I am a native Californian from San Jose, and my roots trace back to a great-great grandmother born there in 1854. I have a large, extended family in California.

Do you have a reading recommendation?

Although I'm not a historian, a recommendation for a great read is the three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. When you look at the size of each book, you wonder if you will ever get through them – but they are so well written that you just keep reading. They are a delightful (to use one of Teddy's favorite words) way to learn about the turn of the previous century in American history.

Spotlight is a new feature that we hope you will all contribute toward. It is meant to be an interactive Q&A with a UC Merced staff or faculty member. In the Sept. 28 issue of Panorama, we will highlight Graduate Student Services Coordinator Rachael Martin, who is also this year's UC Merced Staff Assembly president. We encourage you to submit questions to communications@ucmerced.edu by Sept. 21. Also, let us know if you have someone you would like us to include for a future Spotlight.