Hawk's Eye View: Ron Vetter


Research, innovation and impact like no other. It’s a phrase that could easily be used to describe Ron Vetter, a computer science professor at UNCW.

UNCW Computer Science Professor Ron Vetter

Vetter, a North Dakota native who says he enjoys taking on new challenges about every five years, has served the Seahawk community in a variety of roles during his nearly 30 years on campus, including teaching, serving as the first permanent chair of the Department of Computer Science, as the Associate Provost for Research and Dean of the Graduate School, surpassing the $5 million mark in external research funding and starting two technology companies.

In this Hawk's Eye View, Dr. Vetter shares his thoughts on the value of teaching, research and more.

What made you get into teaching?

I got my undergraduate degree in mathematics and computer science as a double major at North Dakota State in Fargo, N.D.

I was the first of my family to go to a four-year school. I have a twin brother who also went to North Dakota State. He majored in biochemistry and is a medical doctor now.

When I graduated, there was a downturn in the economy. Since I had always liked school, I thought I’d go on and get a master’s degree.

During my first year as a master's student, I was allowed to teach a course in college algebra on my own. For the next three semesters until I got my degree, I was given the opportunity to teach a course in Fortran programming. It was during this time as a graduate assistant that I realized I wanted to teach for a career.

I was told if I wanted to teach at a university, I needed to have a Ph.D. Although I had never considered pursuing a Ph.D. previously, I applied and was accepted into the computer science Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, where I received my terminal degree a few years later.

What brought you to UNCW originally? And then back again?

Upon graduation from the University of Minnesota, I taught at Moorhead State University, in Minnesota [now Minnesota State University Moorhead], for a year while looking for a permanent, tenure-track position.

UNCW came on my radar after my wife had drawn a line across the country and said we were going south of this line! I applied all over the country and ultimately accepted a position here. After one year, North Dakota State had a faculty opening and convinced me to return "home" where our families were. We left and within about a week of leaving we thought, ‘We should not have done that.’

We started missing the ocean and Wilmington. There's something so true when people say they’re drawn to the ocean.

I taught at North Dakota State for two years, waiting for an opening to come back here. UNCW hired me back and I ended up in my same office, same phone number, same everything! That was in 1996 and I have been here ever since.

You can change a student's life and that's pretty awesome! I think that's the most important thing I enjoy within teaching.

— Ron Vetter

What is at the heart of UNCW’s Department of Computer Science culture?

When we hire new people, we want them to come in with new ideas and new courses to teach. We want them to become involved and serve as change agents within the department. We encourage them to speak their minds, including their thoughts on the current curriculum. That's how you change and get better.

Tell me a little about the computer museum in Congdon Hall and how you have seen computers change.

Congdon Hall has a small display of early computing devices used at UNCW. For example, the first wireless access point on campus that we purchased with a grant is displayed there. It cost $850. Today they’re about $30.

We also have pocket computers in the display case. These are little, hand-held computers that look a bit like a cell phone, but they aren't phones. I wrote an article in 2001 called "The Wireless Web." It described how mobile phones and hand-held computers were going to combine into one device that we could hold in our hands. It was a very popular article.

How did you play a key role in UNCW’s graduate program growth?

When I became Dean of the Graduate School in 2013, the psychology Ph.D. had been hung up in the UNC System office pending approval for many years. In addition, UNCW had plans for a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree that was being finalized. When Chancellor [Jose] Sartarelli arrived at UNCW, he helped get those two programs approved.

In addition, we worked on new graduate degree programs in areas we felt there would be both student and industry demand. In total, 10 new graduate degree programs were approved and student enrollment went from 1,500 students in 2013 to 3,500 students today.

What is the impact of being a university professor?

You can change a student's life and that's pretty awesome! I think that's the most important thing I enjoy within teaching.

I recently received an email from a former student who was back home visiting family in Wilmington. He wanted to catch up with me while here. During lunch he told me how much he appreciated what I had done for him and said, 'You changed my life!' 

It's sometimes hard for us to believe that. I believe it's education that changes a life; but the student also believes it’s you. Perhaps that's because we (as the department, college or university) gave them the motivation and support they needed. It takes all of us to change a life.

You are a recent member of the $5 million research club. Why have you applied for so many research grants?

I apply for grants for three reasons. The first is to hire students. Students need money and I prefer they work here as opposed to anywhere else.

The second reason is because grants help buy equipment the university would otherwise not be able to have. A good example is the campus’ first wireless access point. We could buy stuff that is still experimental and play with it. That’s  important for future purchases as well as allowing us to truly innovate.

Third, we can use grant funds to pay for conference travel for both students and faculty. This opens additional opportunities for collaboration and growth.

What’s a research project you particularly enjoyed?

That would be an interdisciplinary research project between chemistry, math, computer science, physics and biology. It was called Project Numina and involved improving teaching and learning of STEM concepts using hand-held computers and wireless networks.

One of the unique things about the project was that we would travel to give presentations at places like N.C. State, UNC Chapel Hill, Duke, etc. No one else had this kind of technology at the time.

To me that was kind of inspiring. Here’s UNCW, which didn’t have nearly the same resources, but because we got grants and did innovative things, we were doing things that they were not doing.

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