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Robotics researcher leaving USF

Robin Murphy will let USF keep the $500,000 grant she recently got from Microsoft to create a robot “buddy” that will act as a companion to people trapped in disasters like building collapses.

CARRIE PRATT | Times

Robin Murphy will let USF keep the $500,000 grant she recently got from Microsoft to create a robot “buddy” that will act as a companion to people trapped in disasters like building collapses.

TAMPA — Another week, another top professor leaving the state.

The University of South Florida is losing bragging rights to internationally renowned robotics researcher Robin Murphy, who gained notoriety when she deployed her search-and-rescue robots at the Sept. 11 World Trade Center disaster.

She is resigning at the end of the summer to take a post at Texas A&M University.

For USF, a research university trying to boost its national profile, the departure is a painful reminder of how hard it's becoming to keep the best faculty members here in the Sunshine State.

Dwayne Smith, senior vice provost at USF, said the university "couldn't touch" the Texas offer. Murphy did not disclose her new salary, but Smith said it is eye-popping in comparison to the $127,238 she makes at USF.

"Plus they threw a lot of support and infrastructure at her," Smith said. "We've had several resignations, but this is the most high-profile. And I expect we'll have more to come. It's really a helpless feeling because we don't have the resources to keep up."

Florida State and the University of Florida, the other two major public research institutions, also have lost dozens of faculty members in the past year.

They're headed to universities in states like North Carolina that do not suffer the same financial and political uncertainties as Florida, where lawmakers facing revenue shortfalls have cut tens of millions of dollars from colleges' rolls.

Earlier this month, universities learned they stand to lose as much as another 4 percent in the budget year that begins July 1.

Murphy said taking the Texas job was a difficult decision, but ultimately she decided she wanted the guarantee of better research resources.

"Here you've got salary compression, the lack of ability to hire additional faculty," said Murphy, 50, longtime director of USF's Institute for Safety Security Rescue Technology. "I will go from a 20-person department here to a 45-person department in Texas, and the chance to hire two more people."

Murphy, whose robots also played a major role in the attempted rescue of six Utah miners last year, said Texas was very aggressive in recruiting her. She also got a call from the University of South Carolina, whose administrators told her they are taking advantage of Florida universities' budget woes to poach top faculty members.

"USF is a great university, and it will make it, but it's going to be harder," Murphy said. "And the truth is, I am getting older, and my opportunities to make a difference in this world are getting shorter. These are my prime-time years."

She said she cannot spend those years worrying about the cost of printer paper. Yes, it has come down to that, she said.

"We're down to the level here where they're saying you have to pay for your own printer paper."

Murphy will leave at USF the $500,000 grant she recently got from Microsoft to create a first-of-its-kind robot "buddy" that acts as a companion to people trapped in disasters like building collapses.

But she is taking with her other federal grants worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Robotics researcher leaving USF 06/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 7:38pm]
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