Pitt's chancellor-elect seasoned with real world experiences with serious problems

Debra Erdley
| Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

When the National Institute of Technology and Standards had to explain to Congress a plutonium spill at its Boulder, Colo., lab in 2008, the agency turned to a career scientist in its ranks.

Patrick D. Gallagher, the University of Pittsburgh's chancellor-elect, then an agency physicist well versed in public policy for scientific labs, chaired the committee that found lapses in safety management and laid the foundation for enhanced safety guidelines.

As officials studied the initial report, Gallagher, then director of the institute's National Center for Neutron Research, became deputy director of the institute.

Then-Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., was skeptical that anyone could undo the harm to the agency's reputation.

“He has a hard road ahead of him in ensuring that safety programs at the NIST laboratories are brought up to appropriate standards in order to earn back the public's trust,” Salazar said at the time.

That the agency turned to Gallagher during a crisis came as no surprise to James Maher. Maher, Pitt's provost emeritus and distinguished service professor of physics, was Gallagher's adviser when the young scientist was completing his doctorate in physics.

“When you are supervising graduates doing a Ph.D., it's a very close relationship,” Maher said.

Maher read about the crisis in Boulder long after Gallagher completed his degree at Pitt in 1991.

“That was a terrible mess. But that's when (Gallagher) is at his best. He is unflappable. When things go wrong, he keeps his wits about him.”

In 2009, President Obama tapped Gallagher to head the institute, which employs 3,000 engineers and scientists in labs in Boulder and near Washington.

As director, Gallagher tapped his crisis-management skills to oversee an agency with a staff of engineers, scientists and support staff that must interact closely with business, industry and universities to establish technology and measurement standards for multiple enterprises. Those include the nation's power grid, cloud computing, advanced manufacturing, fire science, nanotechnology and cyber security.

At any time, the institute is hosting 2,700 associates from universities, industry and related agencies with which it collaborates.

The politics at a university can be brutal, but Gallagher, 50, thrived for two decades in a similar climate.

As recently as last fall, just months before a security breach at Target led to the theft of debit and credit card information of millions of customers, Gallagher appeared before Congress to press for increased funding for the institute's cyber security efforts. He told the committee that cyber security, an area for which his agency has held responsibility since 1972, had become a top priority.

Michael B. Spring, an associate professor of information science and telecommunications and president of Pitt's Faculty Senate, is among a small number of Pittsburgh residents who encountered Gallagher in his role at the agency.

Spring said he met Gallagher last year when he was attending a grant meeting.

“Having worked with NIST on various projects and in varying capacities over two decades, I had known several of the NIST directors. I was impressed with Dr. Gallagher's style and presence,” Spring said. “His career to date, his personality, his reputation and his academic credentials all make him a good choice (for Pitt).”

Gallagher will take over at Pitt on Aug. 1.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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