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A Q&A with Ken Furton

A Q&A with Ken Furton

September 25, 2014 at 12:00am

A research scientist and father of two FIU students, Ken Furton aims to enhance the value of an FIU degree

As a young chemist in 1988, Kenneth G. Furton faced a career-defining decision. After completing post-doctoral research work in nuclear science at Swansea University in Wales, Furton returned to the United States where he was recruited by industry and academia. Two job offers were of particular interest. The first was Pfizer Inc., the world’s largest research-based pharmaceutical company. The second was FIU.

“I asked my mentor, Professor Howard Purnell, what he thought I should do. There was no doubt in his mind,” Furton said. “He knew I would want the freedom to dream big and pursue my own research. Once I realized he was right, the decision became easy.”

When Furton arrived on campus, FIU had eight buildings and 17,000 students. He helped to grow the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, first as an educator, later as department chairman. All along, his true passion has been his research. Furton found a niche in forensic chemistry and, in particular, scent detection. His career’s work has produced more than 700 journal articles and presentations on drugs, explosives and human scent detection while guiding the careers of more than 100 students who have worked in his lab. His findings have influenced policies worldwide involving canines in law enforcement. Along the way, he founded the International Forensic Research Institute at FIU, the first approved by the State of Florida to assist law enforcement.

By 2001, the seasoned chemist moved into the administrative offices of the College of Arts & Sciences. Six years later, he was named dean. Without hesitation, he changed the face of FIU’s largest and most diverse college, organizing it into three thematic schools that address some of the most critical issues facing society today.

And now, Furton will lead the academic future of the university that recruited him nearly 26 years ago. In April of this year, President Mark B. Rosenberg appointed Furton FIU’s new provost. Writer JoAnn Adkins sat down with Furton to talk about his new role as FIU’s senior academic administrator.

As provost, what are some of your big ideas for FIU?

My top priority is to lead the development and implementation of a bold new strategic plan for the university. There are four focus areas – improving student success, highlighting preeminent programs, expanding FIU’s financial base and attaining the top Carnegie research classification. My overarching goal is to ensure that the quality of an FIU education and the value of an FIU degree constantly improve.

What plans do you have to expand FIU’s research agenda?

I believe strongly that FIU should strive for Carnegie Very High Research classification, the premier classification in academia. Our scientists are already performing cutting-edge research. If you look at what we’re doing with sea level rise, nanotechnology, ADHD in children and transportation, you realize FIU takes its role as Miami’s public research university very seriously.

Nationally, much focus has been put on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education. What does that mean for FIU? For the social sciences and humanities?

STEM education is critical to America’s innovation success, but the U.S. is being outperformed by other countries. As a result, it’s become a national priority, which creates a real opportunity for FIU. We’ve made an effort to develop more innovative STEM courses and educational programs to help students excel. Plus, the diversity of our student population is a generation ahead of most of the rest of the country, so FIU can serve as a national lab for STEM transformation.

Having said that, the humanities and social sciences are more important than ever, because employers want well-rounded employees. We split the College of Arts & Sciences into three schools to ensure the humanities and social sciences were integrated with the natural sciences so we could provide innovative interdisciplinary programs. The integration of these disciplines is the key to graduating critical thinkers, team workers and effective communicators.


Furton with his children, FIU sophomores Courtney and Robert.

With your twins, Robert and Courtney, entering their sophomore year at FIU, what insights on FIU have you gained as a parent?

It’s been very insightful, actually. Through their eyes, I’ve seen areas where I know we can improve as a university. It’s helped me to think more about the actual student experience and how we can do things to give the students a clearer roadmap to success. You think you really know everything you need to know about a job, but as a father, I’m learning new things about FIU every day.

Are people surprised when they find out you are still a practicing forensic scientist?

Probably. I have testified as an expert witness dozens of times including in high profile capital murder trials. My research was also recently cited in the Supreme Court decision affirming the use of drug dogs for probable cause to search vehicles. I’ve actually expanded my focus to include birds and elephants in recent years. It’s definitely been a challenge to maintain an active research group and be dean, but it’s also very satisfying.

You’re often sporting some unusual neckties. Just how many do you own?

It’s definitely in the hundreds. My favorite is my Rolling Stones tie. I actually proposed to my wife, Debby, at a Rolling Stones concert.

What is something about our new provost that might surprise the FIU community?

I was a thespian in high school. I actually joined the drama club because my older sister, Karen, was a thespian and we were very competitive. My favorite performance was playing Anne Sullivan’s dead brother in “Miracle Worker.” Anne Sullivan was Helen Keller’s governess. Karen played Helen Keller. Playing a spirit, I had to deliver all my lines offstage. I thought I gave the performance of a lifetime but to this day, my parents and two other sisters still rave about Karen’s performance though she didn’t have to deliver a single line! The rivalry still continues.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

The Graham Center, during lunch in front of Bustelo. It captures the essence of FIU.