illustration of a maze shaped like a brain

The Road to R1

SDSU is moving toward its goal of achieving the highest research classification for doctoral universities. Here’s a look at how it all got started — from a group of leading chemistry professors in the mid-60s to today’s thought leaders.

By Kellie Woodhouse

March 11, 2022

Retired chemistry faculty outside Sala Thai restaurant

Several of the chemistry professors who lobbied for, and ran, San Diego State College’s first doctoral program pose outside of Sala Thai, where they gather regularly for lunch. From left: Steve Dahms, Jack Stewart, Hal Walba, Bill Tong, Ed Grubbs, Morey Ring, Ed O’Neal and Bill Richardson.

In a strip mall off College Avenue, next to the Vons, is a small Thai Restaurant. The tables are laden with white tablecloths topped with paper sheets, the servings are generous and affordable and, in years past, one might have noticed a picture on the wall of a group of gray-haired men standing in front of the restaurant and smiling, Sala Thai’s neon sign blazing behind them.

The men have been meeting at Sala Thai for nearly 30 years, religiously getting together on the first Friday of each month, derailed only by a global pandemic that requires participants — most of whom are now in their 70s and 80s — to meet over Zoom as they try to avoid exposure to COVID-19.

They are the original professors who lobbied for, and ran, San Diego State College’s  — and the California State University system’s — first doctoral program in the mid-1960s. Many among their number have passed on, but they keep meeting each month, sharing stories and keeping the memory of their achievement alive.

What many Aztecs don’t know — including a lot of the scholars who have passed through the modern-day SDSU’s 23 doctoral programs — is that the university was never meant to be the research institution it has become. In fact, California’s Donahoe Higher Education Act, which was adopted to the state constitution in 1960, specifically lays out that the CSU system’s primary function is instructing students “in applied fields and in the professions, including the teaching profession.”

Research at CSU campuses was only “authorized to the extent that it is consistent” with that function. Meanwhile, the University of California system was appointed “the primary state-supported academic agency for research” with “sole authority” to award doctoral degrees.

The only exception was if a UC campus chose to partner with a state college on a joint-doctoral degree. Yet even then, the state colleges were at the mercy of the UC system’s discretion. The act essentially told California’s state colleges to “stay in your lane,” explains University History Curator and Anthropology Professor Seth Mallios.

“Statewide, it sends the message that you are only about teaching,” Mallios says. “While it did provide a framework for partnering, it insisted that we were the weaker partner.”

Yet faculty and administrators at the San Diego campus weren’t willing to be pigeonholed into a lesser role.

Around the time the Donahoe Act was moving through the state legislature, interest was building within San Diego State College to form a doctoral program. Malcolm Love, the president at the time, wanted to elevate the institution from a teachers’ college to a university that was also research-minded.

A Perfect Test Subject

And the chemistry department was a perfect test subject. The department already had a cohort of strong researchers: chemists like Ambrose Nichols, an alumnus of the Manhattan Project who had received one of San Diego State College’s earliest research grants in the mid-1950s; and Arne Wick, who came to the mesa from Scripps Clinic (now known as Scripps Research) in 1958 with grant funds and an esteemed reputation in the scientific community. And its master’s degree program was known to be rigorous, often taking students three or four years to complete.

The department chair in the 1960s, Hal Walba, an AAAS fellow who led a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, also understood how participating in research was critical for faculty to remain sharp in their fields, according to many of the faculty who worked with him at the time and are now a part of the lunch crew.

“You have to have your hand in the pot stirring something in research,” says William Richardson, a chemistry professor from 1963 to 1994. “You can’t be a distant philosopher. You really have to be involved.”

The country’s space race with the Soviet Union at the time meant federal research funding was suddenly abundant and within reach, allowing chemistry researchers to grow their portfolios quickly, explains Edward Grubbs, a professor from 1961 to 1997. Such funding “made it [more] accessible for those of us who were not in an established big quality research institution to apply for grants and succeed,” Grubbs says.

These ambitions faced resistance and bureaucratic hurdles from state authorities and the UC system, which was reportedly not keen to lose its monopoly on doctoral degrees in the state’s public higher education system, according to multiple historical accounts — including a detailed history of the chemistry department written in 1973 by Dudley H. Robinson, who started teaching there in 1928.

In addition, professors involved in the push reported some blowback from faculty who wanted the institution to remain a teaching college, and not get involved in major research.

Yet Love was undeterred. In his view, research was an essential component of the DNA of a great university. “No institution of higher learning can exist and not do research,” Love said at the time, according to Raymond Starr’s book “San Diego State University: A History in Word and Image.” “Our primary aim is teaching, but research is concomitant.”

And the effort was given a boost by a major figure in history. In 1963, just months before he was assassinated, U.S. President John F. Kennedy gave the commencement address at San Diego State College and received the institution’s first honorary doctorate. The visit was carefully coordinated by faculty and administrators who wanted to strike down reluctance to partner with SDSU on a doctoral degree, according to Mallios.

“There was such a built-in disincentive for universities to partner with us — unless we are the leading story on the evening news for a week,” explains Mallios. “And that’s what happened with Kennedy’s visit. It brought prestige, and that changed the trajectory of SDSU.”

Two years after Kennedy’s visit the institution’s first doctoral program was approved, and just a couple of years after that — in 1967 — the college conferred its first joint doctoral degree, in partnership with the University of California, San Diego, to chemist Robert P. Metzger, now a professor emeritus at SDSU.

“Looking back it seems a miracle that we were able to overcome all the objections and to live through all the frustrations and delays,” Robinson wrote in 1973, shortly after the upgrade to state university status.

And the university was making the case that it could be a research institution in other ways as well. By 1965, faculty had authored at least 211 books and in the fall of 1967 alone, it received $1.2 million in federal grants, according to Starr.

“When this group of chemistry professors started the chemistry doctorate, they had to overcome a lot of challenges,” says Bill Tong, who came to SDSU as a chemistry professor in 1985 and is now the university’s vice provost. “But they prevailed. They actually started the research culture here and started SDSU down the path it’s on today.”

The momentum continued under President Thomas Day (1978-96), a powerful proponent of the teacher/scholar model, and by 1991 the university had eight doctoral programs. Later, President Stephen Weber (1996-2011) and President Elliot Hirshman (2011-17) continued to champion research and bolster investments in faculty scholarship.

Since then, SDSU has continued defying expectations and growing its research enterprise, while still excelling in teaching students. SDSU now runs 19 joint-doctoral programs and four professional doctoral programs (three of which are operated independently). SDSU’s latest Ph.D., a joint-doctorate for Interdisciplinary Research on Substance Use, was launched in partnership with UCSD in 2015.

In 2020-21, in the midst of the pandemic, university researchers from all seven colleges brought in $140.6 million in funding. SDSU received one of its largest-ever grants, a $15 million, five-year award from the National Institutes of Health to bolster Latinx health disparities research and strengthen the pipeline of scientists focused on the subject. Throughout the pandemic, researchers have led more than 50 research projects aimed at tackling different aspects of COVID-19.

At the same time, SDSU has remained focused on providing a quality education for its students, including underserved students. The university is a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution and Asian American Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution, and underrepresented minorities have a near 75% six-year graduation rate, according to university figures for the cohort that entered SDSU in 2015 (the latest data available). SDSU offers a cache of programs aimed at increasing student participation in research. The Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, for example, has been running at SDSU for three decades and supports underrepresented students in STEM fields through mentorships, paid research experiences and other programming.

“We are an institution that is devoted to teaching and research,” says Nancy Marlin, who served as SDSU’s provost from 1998 to 2014. “We occupy that amazing spot in California’s public higher education system. Faculty are dedicated to their teaching and the students, as well as to their research.”

Chemistry professor Christal Sohl studies how rogue enzymes lead to cancerous tumors, and also mentors student researchers and co-leads the MARC program. She notes that a lot of SDSU undergraduates are first-generation college students or minoritized groups, people who may not have considered careers in research before experiencing the process of scientific discovery in the lab.

For Sohl, research and teaching go hand-in-hand. “Research provides really valuable tools that set students up for any career they want to go into,” Sohl explains. “Day in and day out, student researchers get to practice critical thinking, working in a team and resilience. There’s a big movement in science education to have the classroom replicate the research lab and prioritize discovery-based learning. SDSU has done a great job of exemplifying that, and it wouldn’t be possible without the culture of research here.”


Chemistry researcher Arne Wick with Robert Metzger, first Ph.D. student at San Diego State College. Photograph: University Archives Photograph Collection, San Diego State University Library.

SDSU Mission Valley Innovation District rendering

SDSU Mission Valley Innovation District rendering.

Collaboration is Key

When Forest Rohwer — a prolific researcher and ecologist who founded the field of viromics — thinks about what makes SDSU an exceptional research university, he lands on the university’s diverse pool of capable student researchers and its prime location in a city full of scholars open to collaborating and helping one another advance science.

“You have a lot of the things you need here,” he says. “There’s a lot of good people — great students and partner institutions. When you are in a city with so many good people around you, it really does make a difference.”

Collaboration is one of the key reasons SDSU’s research enterprise has exploded in the last decade. University researchers are increasingly working together, and with community, industry and scientific partners, to solve major problems facing the region and the world.

For example, SDSU’s Areas of Excellence initiative started in the early 2010s and focused on hiring clusters of expert faculty researchers dedicated to tackling pressing issues like climate change, smart health and human dynamics in the digital age.

And the ongoing Big Ideas Initiative, with projects selected by President Adela de la Torre, brings existing researchers together on faculty-identified initiatives like curbing homelessness, leveraging comics to advance social justice and using digital platforms to improve lung health. Both programs represent an investment by the university to prioritize collaborative research.

“We are building team science — transdisciplinary groups of people working together to provide unique solutions to sticky problems,” explains Stanley Maloy, associate vice president for research and innovation.

“It has become clear that many of the problems facing us today can’t be solved within the lens of a single discipline,” Maloy continues. “We are strategically thinking about ways to bring groups together, so that people who are thinking about common problems from different angles can build the synergies needed to solve these thorny issues.”

This is especially true with the planned innovation district at SDSU Mission Valley. With 1.6 million square feet of office, technology and research space, the district will be built to facilitate collaborations between SDSU researchers and public-private partners. It will consist of hubs where particular areas of focus — transportation, health and media, for example — are approached through a lens of transdisciplinary collaboration. Maloy uses buzzwords like “bumpability,” “convergence” and “creative collisions” to describe the desired outcome of the district: a place where transdisciplinary collaborations beget new partnerships and new ways of thinking about solutions. A site where engineers might develop a technology, and social scientists help hone it so that it’s easy for anyone to adopt, and industry and SDSU faculty work together to advance the technology from basic science all the way to commercialization.

“With successful innovation districts, place becomes essential in building opportunities to collaborate and ideate,” Maloy says. “This provides a greater opportunity for research that solves all types of problems and stands across disciplines. That’s the type of research society needs.”

Plans for the district are underway, and SDSU’s first public-private partners are expected to be announced later this year, with construction starting as early as 2023.

The university has a long history of working with the San Diego community — from SDSU’s first community-based grant led by public health researcher John Elder in the mid-1980s and focused on nutrition in the Latino community, to present day research at the South Bay Latino Research Center measuring Latino health in one of the largest studies of its kind.

These strong relationships have helped SDSU researchers gain credibility among both community partners and funding agencies. Long-held relationships fostered by public health faculty like Elder, for example, were what allowed SDSU researchers across disciplines to pivot so quickly during the pandemic and launch the Communities Fighting COVID! (CFC) program. CFC is a major effort, supported by both local and national agencies, that facilitates contact tracing, testing and vaccination throughout San Diego. The program has also led to research insights on how best to reach vulnerable communities during a public health crisis.

“We are embedded in the community. We represent the community. We are the community,” says Hala Madanat, interim vice president for research and innovation, pointing out that roughly 245,000 SDSU alumni live in San Diego County.

“We do everything we can to pivot our research when necessary and address issues that are important to the community,” she says. “That builds trust and allows us to roll out programs at a speed others can’t because they have to forge relationships from scratch, whereas we already have them firmly in place.”

Strategy at Center

In recent years, the university has been strategic about supporting team science with financial incentives. This has included support for research-based centers and institutes on campus, for reduced teaching loads for teams of faculty working together on important projects, and for equipment purchases that benefit research groups, as opposed to a solitary researcher.

SDSU has also made key investments in faculty. Training programs for early career faculty, for example, help them become more competitive when applying for hard-to-get grants, and robust reviewer programs greatly improve grant application success rates.

The benefits are already apparent. Since 1998, SDSU has received 26 National Science Foundation CAREER awards, a prestigious award given to highly competitive early career faculty. Yet half of them — 13 awards — have gone to early career faculty within just the last three years.

Meanwhile, SDSU is launching a program that facilitates expert review of faculty manuscripts, and has held workshops for faculty interested in applying for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). This effort, too, is reaping dividends. So far in 2022, faculty have received three NEH grants.

With a commitment to helping move university discoveries to the public sector where they can be further developed into products that improve people’s lives, SDSU has progressively prioritized entrepreneurship throughout recent years. Faculty receive support from programing like the Zahn Innovation Platform Launchpad, a start-up incubator for students and faculty; CSU I-CORPS, an SDSU-led workshop series that helps research teams explore biotechnology commercialization; and the university’s Pilot Innovation Fund, which offers financial support for faculty looking to commercialize their innovations.

The university had 45 intellectual property disclosures in fiscal 2021 and $558,000 in revenue from intellectual property — figures that measure well against its peer group of research institutions, says Tommy Martindale, director of technology transfer.

A special endowment has allowed SDSU to hire its first National Academy of Sciences member, geographer and conservationist Janet Franklin. Her hire positions the geography department — which is already a major leader in creating and interpreting spatial data to analyze phenomena over time — as increasingly competitive.

As SDSU faculty become more ambitious, the entire institution benefits. “Success begets success,” says Stephen Welter, former vice president for research. “You have faculty visionaries who attract other faculty who share their vision, high standards and aspirations. And you try to leverage their successes to build state-of-the-art core facilities to help attract competitive master’s and doctoral students, such that the cycle of high performance spirals upwards.”

The strategy behind SDSU’s growing research enterprise has been strengthened and refined over time, says Michele Goetz, who has worked at the SDSU Research Foundation for 36 years, including six years as CEO. In earlier days, the ambitions of individual faculty often drove the research agenda for the university. Yet in recent decades, Goetz says, the university has put strategies and mechanisms in place to invest in research across all colleges and departments.

“It’s like the saying, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’” Goetz offers.

illustration of a brain with maze

R1 a Top Goal

When the university unveiled SDSU’s strategic plan in 2020, strengthening the institution’s research enterprise was among the top five strategic priorities. The plan set forth the goal of becoming an R1 institution, a classification from the Carnegie Foundation that notes “very high research activity” and is reserved for the nation’s most active and well-rounded research universities.

“The university consulted with hundreds of stakeholders when coming up with the plan, and it was clear from the start that SDSU is a strong research institution whose faculty have a significant impact on society,” says Madanat. “At SDSU, research is not siloed from the larger mission of the university — which is to serve our diverse student population and impact our community. Continued excellence in research actually allows us to live by, and strengthen, these core values.”

SDSU is currently classified as an R2 doctoral university with “high research activity.” To become R1, it needs to continue strategically investing in research, encouraging doctoral programs in a wide variety of fields and supporting the research activity of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research scholars. These are investments SDSU has made for decades, and will increasingly make in the future. SDSU’s R&D expenditures — $108 million in 2021 — are already on par with or ahead of a number of longstanding and recently inducted R1 institutions. “We are extremely active, and we make phenomenal contributions to science and society,” says John Crockett, associate vice president for research advancement. “R1 status will come as an outcome of our continuing investments and sustained research excellence.”

For many at SDSU, the path ahead is exciting and full of potential. Faculty like Sandy Bernstein have seen the research enterprise grow and grow, despite the odds. “The can-do attitude — it’s strong here at SDSU,” he says. “It’s what makes us different. If we want to do something, we will get it done.”

Bernstein leads the university’s longest running grant, a 36-year-long National Institutes of Health-funded study of the molecular basis of muscle contraction. Yet as he retires from nearly 40 years on SDSU’s faculty, what sticks with him the most are the memories of his students over the years.

“Seeing your student learn to love science, or get a wonderful job, or get into med school — that’s the main reason we keep doing what we are doing,” Bernstein says. “I mean the research is fun too. But it’s really the interaction with the students, and seeing them succeed, that is most rewarding.”