Q&A with VIMS Dean & Director Dr. Derek Aday: New Multidisciplinary Sections at VIMS to Facilitate Solving Grand Global Challenges

On July 1, 2023, VIMS will launch a new organizational structure with three problem-focused sections, rather than traditional academic departments. The new sections are Natural Resources, Coastal & Ocean Processes, and Ecosystem Health. Learn more about the sections here.
We sat down with VIMS Dean & Director Dr. Derek Aday to discuss how the new organizational structure will help advance VIMS’ research, education, and advisory mission.
Q: VIMS often talks about “science for solutions.” Looking to the future, how will the new organizational design help VIMS scientists create new knowledge and develop solutions to complex challenges? 

The new institutional structure gives us organizational units that are focused not on traditional academic disciplines but instead on contemporary problems that VIMS is and will continue to be instrumental in solving. The pace of global change is accelerating and coastal communities in the Commonwealth and around the nation and world will be more dependent in the years ahead on our actionable science than, perhaps, ever before. This new, flexible structure provides space for faculty, staff, and students to work together in multidisciplinary teams to solve grand global challenges related to the conservation and management of natural resources, ensuring healthy and functional ecosystems, and maintaining resilient coastal and ocean systems.

Our solutions-based work should be even more impactful and visible with this new design, where we now have new potential interactions and more flexibility for the creation of multi-investigator teams – like the group that is working on combining seagrass planting and scallop releases with ecological monitoring to explore habitat restoration on the Eastern Shore, or the developing team that is considering ways to strategically position VIMS for multidisciplinary engagement with the rapidly expanding offshore wind industry.

Q: There’s such a breadth of expertise at VIMS, how did you approach determining the new sections? 

Much of the foundational work was done by the strategic planning team. That group of faculty, staff and students used a series of white papers as well as broad input from across the Institute and from the leadership team to identify VIMS’ "sweet spot” - places where 1) we have existing strength 2) we can grow and broaden our impact, and 3) we interpret the greatest need for our stakeholders and coastal communities globally. 
The strategic planning team ultimately defined those three priority areas for research and advisory service, and it then made sense to build operational and budget structures around the strategic priorities.

I believe that great organizations have a vision, a set of strategies to achieve that vision, and resource alignment to maximize strategic success. The strategic planning and implementation teams have done an outstanding job of getting us to that point.

Q: In your view, what does success look like – what will be happening several years from now if the organizational redesign is successful? 

First and foremost, our very large and diverse set of constituents and stakeholders will better know and understand us. This restructuring provides the opportunity to better communicate to non-scientific audiences who we are, what we do, and how we impact their lives.

Second, we have a structure and budget that should facilitate thinking and acting more strategically: we have the intellectual space for our outstanding current (and incoming) scientists to work collaboratively across disciplinary boundaries on the grand challenges facing coastal and marine systems, and we have a more nimble structure that will allow us to anticipate future challenges while also responding to the changing needs of our stakeholders. I think that translates to work that pushes the boundaries a bit more while also continuing to provide the actionable science and reliable advisory service that the Commonwealth and coastal communities have depended on for nearly a century.

Finally, it provides the opportunity to address some internal financial and procedural inconsistencies; success moving forward looks like an organization that more consistently and strategically leverages the tremendous human and financial resources we have at VIMS.

Q: How will the new organizational design help the multidisciplinary groups called “clusters” amplify their impact? 

I think that new clusters will be developed at the intersection of faculty expertise and community and scientific need. Rather than having hard disciplinary boundaries in traditional academic departments, we now have problem-focused sections that allow faculty to self-select into primary and secondary organizational units that reflect their interests and address contemporary needs of coastal communities.

New "clusters" can form within and across sections, providing VIMS the flexibility necessary to remain a global leader in coastal and marine science, removing barriers to collaboration and facilitating multidisciplinary partnerships. These clusters can come and go as our scientific and stakeholder needs change, allowing us to pivot quickly when new combinations of existing talent and expertise can be aimed at emerging problems, while also evolving strategically as an organization in response to longer-term changes in the scientific landscape.