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Campus Voices: Partnering With Parks for Our First Research Institute

September 6, 2017

UC Merced is the only university with a research station in Yosemite National Park, and we have the Sierra Nevada Research Institute (SNRI) to thank for that. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the campus’s signature research program got its kickoff in a UC Davis parking lot.

Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, then the University of California’s vice provost for Academic Initiatives, had the lead on what she called “the greatest initiative of them all” — the creation of UC’s 10th campus, to be built in Merced. Her vision was to establish the campus identity as a research university from the get-go. A modest grant from the state would help nail down a robust research theme. A future-thinking faculty group from across the UC campuses would embrace this brainstorming challenge with gusto.

To begin, Carol T-K leveraged her faculty network. She met with former colleague Dan Sperling, UC Davis director of the Institute for Transportation Studies, who wondered whether the UC Merced research fund could help make a contact in order to realize a pilot transportation project in Yosemite National Park. Knowing I was a dedicated Sierran and that we needed to move quickly, Carol gave me the assignment as we stood in that parking lot. 

Dan’s colleague Don Erman, director of the Wildlands Resource Center, added ideas. He sent us to UC Santa Barbara’s Frank Davis, then one of the UC system’s most innovative new minds in ecosystem analysis and an admired research partner with the Sierra national parks and forest service. Frank accepted Carol’s invitation to chair an intercampus committee to write a prospectus for a new southern Sierra research center at UC Merced.