Jaime Grunlan cuts an intimidating figure on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. Six feet 8 inches tall, broad-shouldered and sporting impressive sideburns, Grunlan, a former college football player, looks like he just stepped off the set of an X-Men movie.
At 37, he is already a tenured associate professor in the university’s mechanical engineering department. His research has lifesaving applications — and it generates enough money to pay Grunlan’s salary and subsidize several others.
All of which makes him the ideal candidate for a new task he took on this year: outspoken defender of a faculty that felt bombarded by criticism in the midst of a controversy over the value of academic research and the future of higher education in Texas.
It is not a role he relishes. While he calls his work at the university “a dream,” he said that for the first time since coming to A&M in 2004, he is open to academic opportunities elsewhere — in which case those who would seek to reform higher education might end up pushing out a promising leader and powerhouse researcher.
Karan Watson, A&M’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said in an email, “We must ensure that the broader public and regulators understand that it is scholars such as him who are passionately working at an amazing level to serve the public good."
Grunlan is a materials scientist, and his research focuses on three projects. He is working on an imperceptible coating that gives plastic the same food storage capabilities as glass without sacrificing flexibility. He is also developing a paint that can convert heat into electricity.
His most talked-about project, of particular interest to wildfire-plagued Texas, is a nontoxic treatment that prevents fabrics and foams from igniting.
While his research is making waves among scientists, Grunlan has also made a mark outside of his research laboratory. In recent years, the Texas A&M University System had implemented controversial changes proposed by a conservative research group. This spring, those ideas became the focus of a statewide debate, during which outside groups repeatedly insinuated that such changes were necessary because professors at the state’s flagship universities, A&M and University of Texas at Austin, were not productive enough.
At a regents meeting in May, Grunlan told the A&M board what many of his colleagues were saying. “They’re trashing us, and there’s no response from the regents, from the president,” he said. “The lack of anything is deafening and suggests support of the attacks.” His 10-minute speech generated headlines statewide and more than 9,500 views on YouTube.
“If I’m going to get press in the future, I’d love it to be for scientific accomplishment,” Grunlan said, adding that he thinks the situation has improved.
A&M has reversed course on some of its controversial policies, and the regents’ chairman said the proposals were a “distraction.”
Grunlan’s primary focus is on improving his creations. With significant investment from a private company, he estimated that he could have fabrics with a non-toxic, anti-flammable treatment on the shelves within 18 months.
He said he occasionally fields calls about jobs in the private sector, but he prefers the freedom of the academic setting. It took him three years to get where he is with his flame-retardant research. “Very few companies,” he said, “are going to wait around for three years waiting for something to happen.”