Nationally renowned professor named Dean of Arts & Sciences
Faced with the decision of whether to take a third term as vice president of the National Academy of Sciences or become Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Washington University, biology professor Barbara Schaal chose the latter.
Schaal, whose work in evolutionary biology has taken her everywhere from Washington D.C.—where she spends about half of each year not only with the National Academy of Sciences but also as a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology—to Hawaii to Thailand, said she chose to take the position with hopes of building collaboration between different parts of the University.
The University announced her appointment on Sept. 28.
Effective Jan. 1, she will succeed Gary Wihl in overseeing the College of Arts & Sciences, its graduate programs and the University College, which includes handling their respective budgets.
Provost Ed Macias said that she was selected for the position because of her credentials as a teacher and administrator.
“She’s one of the best-known scientists from Washington U., she’s internationally known for her work, and she’s one of the nicest people at Washington U.,” Macias said. “She’s a wonderful collaborator. People really like working with her. People really respect her.”
Schaal noted that one issue she has found through her work in Washington D.C. is that scientists alone aren’t as effective at communicating their findings as they might be if they partnered with workers in the humanities and social sciences.
“There’s a number of scientific topics that people don’t understand or don’t agree [with], so, for example, evolution or climate change or stem cells. So the scientists look at this and they look at it as objective, hard facts and they say look, the climate is changing—we have thermometers, we can measure that. But yet there’s all this pushback,” she said.
“What there’s a tendency to do is just to talk more and to talk louder. And it turns out that’s not an effective communication strategy. So you go to the social sciences and they say, well of course that’s not effective, let me explain to you why,” she said. “To me, that continuum is really interesting and you need to have an understanding across it, I think, to really develop the right kind of national conversation and right kind of policies that are really respectful and appropriate and scientifically accurate.”
Much of her perspective, Schaal said, has come from her great diversity of experiences and travels with her work. Most of her research has taken her to Taiwan and Thailand, where she has spent a significant amount of time studying the rice of the Karen people, an ethnic minority in Southeast Asia.
“We’re evolutionary biologists and we study some processes of evolution, so we use genomics on DNA sequencing,” Schaal said. “I go over there a lot. I go over there to give lectures and interact with them [my post-docs] and stuff like that.”
She noted that sometimes she has found her fascination with the countries and their plant life—she is also trained as a botanist—to put her in some compromising situations.
“I was out in the margins of this field poking around and looking at all of the plants and everything. And my colleagues were saying, come on Barbara,” Schaal said. “Apparently what happened was that there was a huge cobra that lived in the field.”
“I have run into a lot of big snakes in Thailand. I’ve also eaten snake,” Schaal added.
But while most of her international research has centered in Thailand and nearby countries, she said her students have traveled the globe.
“In terms of research, a lot of it is vicarious through my graduate students,” Schaal said. “They’ve been just everywhere—Yemen, Africa, Falkland Islands, Australia, all over Asia, just everywhere. Middle East, Turkmenistan and even Europe. And even more so in the United States.”
In her lab, Schaal’s students have a map with pins marking all the places they have been. They also have a suit of armor that they decorate for the holidays, one of the many assorted oddities that Schaal has collected over the years. She has a fake stuffed buffalo head mounted next to her door and her shelf is covered with Asian trinkets and plaques marking her various achievements.
Biology professor Alan Templeton, who was on the committee that hired Schaal in 1980, was enthusiastic about the promotion.
Templeton first met Schaal in the 1970s, when he was working on her husband’s thesis committee. Their labs are adjacent to one another and before Templeton and his wife moved a few years ago, he and Schaal were neighbors as well.
“Since she’s been here, she’s had experience at all levels of this University,” Templeton said. “She’s established an excellent reputation as a researcher and mentor and as a professor.”
“She knows what’s going on in science and arts and science at the national and international level,” Templeton added. “I saw her in many different contexts and she’s just a terrific person.”