Vice President for Research and Innovation Partnerships; 
Northern Illinois University

In this issue of Catalyst, we sit down with Northern Illinois University Vice President Gerald C. Blazey, Ph.D, to discuss NIU and Discover Financial Services’ new campus collaborative innovation opportunity, Discover Campus Innovator Program, launching this fall.


Tell us about the new partnership with Discover and the inaugural Discover Campus Innovator Program. 

The Discover Campus Innovator Program will launch this fall in “71 North,” the university’s collaborative space for innovation located in the heart of our campus at Founders Memorial Library. About 40 to 50 juniors or seniors selected for the program will be paid to work on and help develop new Discover Financial Services technologies in the areas of mobile-software development, web-application coding and person-to-person payment systems.

Discover Financial Services is based in Riverwoods, Illinois, and has had a history of employing NIU interns and graduates. It was the company that approached us with the idea for the program. In fact, two NIU alumni who work at Discover—Joel Suchomel, vice president of application development, and Glenn Schneider, chief information officer—helped spearhead the initiative. The company recruited students for the program this past spring.


What new opportunities does the Discover Campus Innovator Program present for NIU students?

Without having to leave campus, NIU students selected by Discover for the program will experience the company’s culture, make connections with working professionals, tackle real-world challenges and get a chance to present their work and ideas to company mentors. Discover plans to hire or rehire students for a new round of participants and projects each semester—so over time the program has potential to impact many of our students who have the appropriate tech-savvy skill sets. We think these valuable experiences will give our students an advantage in the job market after graduation and prepare them to hit the ground running in their careers. 

How does the Discover Campus Innovator Program fit into the university’s larger goals for industry collaboration and innovation at NIU?

This fits in perfectly. First, NIU is always seeking to provide our students with experiential learning opportunities. Second, the university has long been committed to expanding collaborations with community, government, cultural, business and industrial partners to address educational, economic, entrepreneurial and research challenges. So we invite private corporations to sponsor research, create innovative student programs and help us to create a pipeline of next-gen employees. We engage with multiple entities, both public and private, for internships and other student and faculty engagement opportunities, but we haven’t had anything to this scale that is centered on-campus, which makes it more convenient for our students.


The Discover Campus Innovator Program will make use of 71 North, a new student innovation space on campus. Tell us about this new space and what it means for innovation and collaboration across campus. How does the Discover Campus Innovator Program fit into the university’s larger goals for industry collaboration and innovation at NIU?

The space is located on the courtyard level of Founders Memorial Library, in a highly visible common area of our campus. The name for the space is derived from the actual room number in the building, but coincidentally relates to a couple different things. “71” plays off of Chicago’s very successful technology and entrepreneurial center, “1871,” and “North” ties in nicely to Northern Illinois University. It’s a subtle way of revealing what we are trying to achieve with the space.

We view 71 North as laboratory for additional partnerships with industry and are exploring several models. 71 North is also a venue for students to meet and work on innovative and entrepreneurial initiatives; attend interdisciplinary innovation/entrepreneurship-centered workshops; and participate in programs for development of professional skills through NIU’s Jobs PLUS program, which brings successful business leaders and entrepreneurs to campus to engage with our students.


Consistent with statewide trends in tech fields, the NIU’s undergraduate enrollment in computer science has grown more than 50 percent since 2012. What accounts for this increase and how is the university leveraging it to promote innovation on campus?

The simple answer is job-market demand. Prospective students recognize that there are lots of jobs waiting to be filled in the tech fields. The upshot is that we’ve seen significant increased demand for our programs leading to both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science. This coming fall at NIU, in fact, we’ll be accepting our first cohort of students seeking Ph.D.s in computer science. This enrollment growth means that we have a larger pool of students who are interested in getting hands-on research and innovation experiences. Several years ago, we launched our Center for Research Computing and Data, which features a high-performance computer cluster used for research by faculty and students from many different disciplines. The center has helped NIU generate three patents and well over 100 scholarly works by students and faculty alike. It also has helped us leverage relationships with more than 30 institutions from across the world, including nearby Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, where we’ve had long histories of collaboration.


The new Discover Campus Innovator Program is a unique opportunity for both NIU students and Discover. How can this partnership attract other forward-thinking companies looking to engage with the next generation of innovators at NIU?

We’re hopeful that Discover’s presence will help NIU attract other business and entrepreneurial partners to NIU, where they can engage with our top students. Opportunities like the Discover partnership demonstrate the commitment that NIU puts on translating classroom theory to real-world application. This partnership also shows the flexibility that NIU has in engaging with industry to ensure our students get the best opportunities. Companies that employ students during their matriculation are building pipelines of next generation employees that are prepared to enter the work force right after graduation.