The Big Get: Governor’s University Research Initiative Brings Alumna Back to UT

Nine top researchers are packing up their labs and heading to Texas this year—and UT is getting one of them. A $34 million program, the Governor’s University Research Initiative seeks to bring researchers at the cutting edge of their fields to the state. But the program, which was signed into law in 2015, may be ending as quickly as it began.

The governor’s office asked the 85th Texas legislature for $40 million to continue the initiative in 2017, but the House and Senate zeroed out funding for it in their budget proposals. A final decision has yet to be made on the fund.

Gov. Abbott hosted researchers at the Governor’s Mansion in March, where he talked about the importance of the GURI program. “What these individuals are doing is far more than just creating the next generation of science, technology, engineering, and math,” Abbott said at the event. “They are partnering together with the private enterprises, with federal government grants, creating teams that create more jobs, that empower the next generation of the Texas economy.”

When the program began, universities such as A&M, the University of Houston, and UT received grants of up to $5 million per distinguished researcher. Each university matches the grant on a one-to-one basis. UT was awarded a GURI grant of $1.8 million for chemical engineering professor Joan Brennecke, BS ’84. The money will fund much more than just Brennecke’s salary, enabling her to bring lab equipment from Notre Dame, and make equipment purchases that will aid her research.

Brennecke completed her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at UT before going on to earn her master’s and PhD from the University of Illinois. She’s since spent several years as a professor at the University of Notre Dame. But Brennecke says she never stopped bleeding orange.

“I feel in my heart I’m a Longhorn,” she says.

Now over three decades later, she’ll be returning to her alma mater as a professor and the Cockrell Family Chair in Engineering. Brennecke is a member of the National Academy of Engineering—one of the highest professional distinctions given to engineers— and has published more than 130 research papers. She is the recipient of numerous awards from the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the U.S. Department of Energy, and more. Her research focuses on energy and sustainability. In her words, she wants to make fossil fuels “greener.” She works to develop ionic liquids, salts with low melting points, for various applications, such as for creating safer and longer-lasting batteries and for removing carbon dioxide from flue gas.

Another application is using ionic liquids to efficiently separate gases from shale gas formations and turn them into gasoline. Her research could have a huge impact on the state, since Texas is the dominant producer of shale gas in the United States. “The whole idea is to turn ethane and propane into liquid fuels that we put in our cars, and to do it on a smaller scale,” Brennecke says. “The buzz words are ‘process intensification:’ do it in a smaller scale process so that we can make the stuff we need closer to where we’re producing the natural resources. There’s a safety and environmental benefit.”

Brennecke will be working to develop this “process-intensifying” technology and see it through to commercialization, benefitting the Texas economy as well. Research at UT-Austin is already a proven economic boon to the entire state. According to an economic impact report conducted by the university, research in 2013 alone added $488 million in added state income to Texas.  “It is really amazing that [GURI] exists,” Brennecke says. “I don’t know of any other states where the state is committed to attracting top people into their academic institutions and is committed to doing that by putting their money behind what they say.”

In addition to research, she will be teaching and training undergraduate and graduate students. She says students benefit from having professors who are active researchers in their field, as she is. “I think from a very practical standpoint that students get a better undergraduate education because I’m doing research in the fields that I’m doing it in,” Brennecke says.

As a female chemical engineering professor, she hopes her presence will make the department more attractive to women. When she roamed the chemical engineering school in the ’80s, there weren’t any female faculty members. In the fall, she’ll be the only female full professor in the department. “Change does happen,” Brennecke says. “I’m really happy that I can be part of that change at my alma mater.”

The future of the grant program is unclear, but Brennecke says she’s fortunate to have been around at the right time to receive the grant and have the opportunity to return to the Forty Acres.

“The chance to contribute to making my alma mater a better place and making the chemical engineering department a better place is just a wonderful feeling,” she says.

Photo of Joan Brennecke courtesy of Joan Brennecke


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