Every Tuesday afternoon at 2 p.m., you’ll find Will Hughes brewing a pot of coffee in the sunny lounge of the College of Innovation and Design, located on the second floor of the Albertsons Library, then sitting back and waiting for the conversation to begin.

Hughes has been holding these weekly opportunities – called Coffee and Conversation – since the launch of the college in 2015. Sometimes 20 people show up; sometimes Hughes talks to himself. Regardless, he never drinks the coffee but believes that showing students they have reliable access to mentors is vital.

“School didn’t always come easy to me,” Hughes explained. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if people hadn’t taken an active interest in my future and my education.”

Today, in addition to being the associate dean of the college, Hughes continues to conduct progressive research in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering where he’s been a faculty member since 2008. He and his team are programming DNA to perform work like a machine, run programs like a computer and store information like a time capsule.

“DNA is an information dense material, which means data can be encoded, stored, moved and manipulated,” Hughes said. “I’m currently interested in the manipulation of that information for medical and memory applications.”

Hughes’s current career stands in stark contrast to where he stood in high school, yet the person throughout the journey has remained the same.

While transitioning from a struggling student and star athlete who was scouted in high school to play professional baseball, to a college engineering student dealing with undiagnosed dyslexia, to a novice sculptor who turned a fascination with stone into a passion for materials science, to a forward-thinking scientist and founding member of the college, Hughes has always marched to the beat of his own drum – a beat that few can hear, but a rhythm that comes from within.

No less intriguing is how his mind works. He is a soft-spoken, intentional person with unflappable focus. He will tell you that his early educational challenges led to the development of coping mechanisms that evolved into invaluable tools like self-efficacy, metacognition, non-linear thinking and pattern recognition.

“It helped me – being diagnosed with dyslexia – to figure out how I think,” explained Hughes. “Once that lesson was learned, I became free to learn and create new things.”

In many ways, that’s what the College of Innovation and Design is all about: learning and creating new things in collaboration with students, other faculty and the greater community. “There is a desire to create a place where we can experiment and test novel models of learning and doing at Boise State,” Hughes said. “We strive to be an exploratory space where faculty and students across campus can come and create partnerships that extend everyone’s vision.”

Coffee and Conversation is one small example of how Hughes and the college are creating opportunities they feel are vital for students, faculty and staff given the current climate of higher education in the U.S. The Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program is another example, which unites undergraduate education, graduate education and faculty research in a team-based context.

“The expense of higher education is increasing nationally, reducing access and increasing student debt. Concurrently, we’re asking faculty and staff to do far more with far less,” he said. “As higher education becomes privatized, we gamble with our social contract to support the common good.”

For these reasons and more, Hughes is committed to democratizing access to innovation at Boise State and well beyond. If you ask Hughes what his three greatest life decisions have been thus far, he will list them in this order: marrying his wife, Diane; having his daughters, Dylan and Taylor; and moving to Boise. Buried in that third answer is a profound motivation, one that drives much of his work at Boise State.

“I see in the people around me what a few special people saw in me – potential. The potential to turn Boise State into a world-class institution with much of what we need already on our campus and in our community.”

Now if you see Will Hughes around campus or out in the community, you’ll know what he’s fueled by, and it isn’t caffeine.

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