South Dakota schools talk research with National Science Board

By Dirk Lammers
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) September 2010

South Dakota’s university and tribal college presidents touted their institutions’ research efforts last week to the group that will decide whether a Black Hills gold mine becomes a national underground physics laboratory.

The National Science Board held its annual retreat and public meeting at Black Hills State University in Spearfish. While the focus of the meeting was not South Dakota’s mine pitch, board members did get a firsthand look at the underground site.

Most of the sessions, broadcast over the Internet, dealt not with the mine and underground lab but with research opportunities in South Dakota. Kevin Kephart, vice president for research at South Dakota State University in Brookings, said the key to success in the state is collaboration and diversification.

Historically, SDSU’s main research focus has been agriculture, and faculty members in past decades have been hired mainly to teach, especially in undergraduate programs. “I don’t have to have another site visit from a review panel to know that our teaching loads for our people on campus are very, very high – unusually high,” Kephart said.

But the state is undergoing a dramatic evolution, Kephart said, as the South Dakota Board of Regents and university leaders have tried to find more time for faculty to conduct research. That “doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

Laura Jenski, vice president for research at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, said not having enough people is a major challenge – something USD tries to accomodate by working with other universities inside and outside the state.

Another panel featured leaders from three tribal colleges.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program in 2001 to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education on the nation’s American Indian reservations. It provides tribal colleges with funds for faculty development, research projects, equipment and instrumentation, lab upgrades, instructional hardware and software and financial and academic support, said program director Jody Chase.

Laurel Vermillion, president of Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock reservation, said it’s helped tribal colleges become beacons of hope on reservations.

“We’ve been called the best-kept secrets,” Vermillion said. “And the more we’re able to get out there and tell people what we’re doing, the more people are understanding the impacts we’re having.”

Following Friday morning’s sessions, board members toured the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake and talked to staff about the ongoing construction and science projects.

In 2007, the NSF picked the Black Hills as the preferred location for a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. Scientists will use the new lab to conduct research into dark matter, neutrinos and other particles at the mine because the rock shields the experiments from cosmic radiation.

A $29 million grant from the NSF to the University of California, Berkeley is being used to develop a preliminary plan, with the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City as one subcontractor.

“This promises to transform this mine into a 21st century treasure of scientific discovery and the creation of new knowledge,” said Robert Wharton, president of the School of Mines.

In early 2011, the NSF-funded design will be presented to the 25-member National Science Board, which will decide whether to move forward and take the deep lab to Congress for funding.

South Dakota has already spent $65 million to convert the old mine into the Sanford Lab, where experiments have started at 4,800 feet underground. State officials hope the foundation will take over funding by May.

The first major experiment, to be installed next year, is the Large Underground Xenon detector experiment – or LUX – a project that scientists hope could give them greater insight into the Big Bang explosion believed to have formed the universe. Work and testing of the detector is under way in a refurbished warehouse on the surface.


Sanford Underground Lab:

Homestake DUSEL: