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Science nerd, humanities fan

Getting to know Beverly Wendland, new dean of Johns Hopkins' School of Arts and Sciences

Beverly Wendland can talk passionately, eloquently, and cerebrally on a variety of topics, from the research value of a yeast cell, to the wonders of Egyptian antiquity, to the heartache of a botched double play. Perhaps that's what led President Ronald J. Daniels to say that Wendland is the leader the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences "needs and deserves at this moment."

Wendland, a distinguished biologist known for dedication to undergraduate and graduate students, commitment to diversity, and advocacy for innovative teaching and liberal arts education, was appointed the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences in February.

A member of the Johns Hopkins faculty since 1998, Wendland was chair of the Krieger School's Biology Department from 2009 until she became interim dean last July. She led her department through a strategic planning process and instituted curriculum improvements, including working with the Chemistry Department to create a new organic chemistry/biochemistry course sequence for undergraduates. Daniels has called her an "early champion" of the Gateway Sciences Initiative, a universitywide exploration of more-effective teaching in introductory science courses. As interim dean, she instituted procedural changes in faculty searches to enhance opportunity for candidates from diverse populations, and made new commitments to support and enhance the undergraduate experience.

Born in Stanford, California, Wendland says she always enjoyed school and doesn't mind the nerd tag. A first-generation college student, she is a 1986 bioengineering graduate of the University of California, San Diego, and earned her doctorate in neurosciences at Stanford University in 1994. As a scientist, she focuses on the working of cells, using simple yeast as a model to gain insight into the development and treatment of complex human disease.

The Gazette recently sat down with Wendland in her office to talk about her past, present, and future, with stops along the way for baseball, canine affection, and the evolutionary significance of an ancient fish.

Did learning of your appointment make you reflect much on the road that got you here?

Yes. This whole process has been an interesting one for sure. As a little girl, or even as a young professor, this was not something I was gunning for or aspiring to. But I think my skills lend themselves to making me effective in this position. I find the challenges, and the sort of intellectual engagement that a dean has with all the different elements of the school inside and outside the university, very intriguing, interesting, and fun to do. Once I got into the interim dean position, I found myself interested in pursuing that further. But, to be honest, I didn't feel like my life was going to be over if I was not selected as the next dean. Having been on search committees myself and seen how the process goes, I was sure the best person was going to be chosen. And if the leadership felt that one of these people was going to be a more effective dean than me, I would embrace that. My thing is that I love our school and this university, and I want the best for it. I consider this my home.

This was a national search that at one point included more than 900 potential candidates.

I know it was a long and thorough search process, with lots of individual meetings. I knew everybody, which made it comfortable on one level but awkward, as I knew I was being judged. But it was a good and rewarding experience. I came through feeling endorsed and empowered. I weathered all of it and came out on the other side all the better for it. I learned a lot about myself.

Did you find the interim position confining in any way, or did you feel you had enough authority to make an impact?

A little bit of both. As a faculty member in a school with an interim leader, the last thing you want to hear over and over is, "I'm an interim dean and I can't make any decisions." Why have a leader if everything is just on hold? I felt that President Daniels empowered me to come in and keep things moving ahead. And he said to me, "If there are any things you want to do that you can get done in a year, you should feel free to do that." That made me feel very liberated to make decisions that I thought were good for the school. There were searches in progress, and faculty appointments that had been promised, and we went ahead with those. We're in the middle of a fundraising campaign. We just completed the strategic plan for our school. We couldn't stop and wait.

When and how did the sciences pull you in?

I was always sciencey-oriented as a kid. But I also liked English a lot. I liked writing and was always a bookworm. I love ancient civilizations and was interested in Sumerian language and cuneiform writing, and mythology and Egyptian culture. I went to see [the Treasures of Tutankhamen] exhibit when that was touring the United States in the 1970s. I guess I've always had eclectic, broad interests. But science was something that I felt most passionate about and was always good at. I was intrigued by processes and how things work. I like puzzles.

What was your plan in college?

When I started, I was a geophysics major at San Diego State. I experienced earthquakes as a kid in California, and that got me interested in plate tectonics and volcanoes. I actually did my sixth-grade science report on Krakatau. But then I took a zoology course for one of my requirements. Up until that time I had avoided biology. In my 10th-grade class, you had to do a pond report, which didn't appeal to me at all, so I focused more on the physical sciences like chemistry and physics. But that zoology course really opened my eyes to how cool biology is. My professor was really inspiring and excellent. I switched my major to bioengineering and transferred to UC San Diego.

What aspect of that zoology course intrigued you?

My professor took us through the different phyla to represent the process of evolution. For example, there is this ancient fish called the amphioxus that has this gill arch structure that seems to be a rudimentary form of our inner ear structures that promote our hearing. And as I'm saying this, I'm realizing that this theory might be long undone as this is 25 or however many years since [laughs]. But this idea that you can envision the structures of our inner ear that allow us to hear and translate that into these gill arch bone structures in this fish and map the relationships between these structures is incredible. This whole idea of evolution and how you can see it in action was just very aesthetically appealing and intellectually captivating for me.

And what brought you to neuroscience?

This traces back to a required neurobiology course for my bioengineering major at UCSD. I had a great professor who explained to us the cell biology of neurons. He told us about the hypothesized existence of a molecule that could coordinate the specializations that are formed by the cell types on either side of the synapse. I just admired the concept of looking at the morphology of a biological system and then coming up with an interesting question like, How does that happen? and then coming up with clear-cut experiments that demonstrate that your idea is correct or on the right track. Again, that was all very appealing to me.

We're at a cocktail party; tell me, Why should I care about yeast cell function?

Yeast are really more sophisticated than people give them credit for [laughs]. Again, the idea of evolution threads through all of this as well, I suppose. My interest in neurobiology looked at how synapses work and how things have been set up to facilitate that function between cells in this very rapid and efficient manner that's necessary for neuronal function, which then spills over into our physiology. What's amazing is that some of the very basic things about how a neuron works are recapitulated in yeast cells. What drew me to want to work with yeast cells was the ability to do very well-controlled experiments with minimal caveats.

Yeast have part of their life cycle where they are haploid, and only have one copy of each gene. That facilitates the ability to make mutations and observe the consequences. For example, little boys more often have color blindness or hemophilia, X-linked diseases, because they have only one copy of the X chromosome. Yeast cells, too, have all their genes present in only one copy, so it's much more straightforward to see what genes are necessary for a particular process.

How much time for research will you now have as dean?

Not as much as I would like. But I'm not going to completely shut that out of my life because I think that as an academic leader I need to keep a toe in that pond. But, obviously, I won't be able to run my lab at the same level and intensity that I have in the past.

And teaching?

No, at least not formally, although I'll certainly be teaching and mentoring in my role at the lab. One of the things I've really enjoyed about my job is the opportunity to teach undergraduate students.

What does innovative teaching mean to you, and what are the expectations these days from students? Are they saying, Don't just give me a lecture?

Sure. Very early on the Biology Department adopted "clickers" for answering questions in class. Those sorts of mechanisms make the students stop and think, talk to each other, engage with the material in a way that's less passive than a lecture would typically be. That's not innovative now, but we were pretty early adopters of that technology. And we just need to keep pressing forward with those approaches.

The trouble is that every day that passes there is more and more stuff to know. It's called the fire hose of information. If you were trying to expose students to all the fundamental facts of a particular discipline, which keep increasing at an exponential level, and then do that across all the disciplines, their heads are going to explode. We can't just keep asking students to become repositories of all this information.

I think the challenge is finding that balance between conveying the fundamental principles and basic tenets of a discipline, and doing so in an efficient way during lectures. What we really need to be doing is have our students learn how to learn. Students who leave Johns Hopkins are going to be lifelong learners. We don't know what jobs will be out there 20 years from now. Things are changing really fast, so we can't be so focused on trying to train someone to be an X, a Y, or a Z. We need to teach our students how to approach questions and find ways to answer them.

You were on the Status of Women advisory committee, so this appointment has to be particularly rewarding and meaningful for you.

Yes, very much so. In fact, there was just a Status of Women Committee event called "Where We Stand," and I spoke for a few minutes. It's incredibly important for women to be willing to stand up and accept the responsibilities of leadership when opportunities present themselves.

What are we still fighting for in terms of gender equality?

We are still far behind in the representation of women in faculty and leadership positions. There are still issues of salary equity that we're currently exploring; I hope here at Johns Hopkins we're not the 74 percent rate of men, as is the national average. We're doing a study to understand that now. I also think family issues are important, and our new child care center at Homewood is helping with that. We've shifted from an opt-in to an opt-out policy, so you can press pause on tenure for one year as it relates to the birth or adoption of a child. And it's important to note that those policies apply equally to men and women. A woman with career leadership aspirations should have a strong and supportive partner, and one willing to pitch in, just like a man with a successful career is often aided and supported by a strong and supportive wife or partner. There need to be equal opportunities.

Your job brings with it an added level of stress. What offers you perspective to help you cope with whatever issues come your way?

My husband and I bring our dogs to work. We have a Rottweiler and a yellow Lab. Dogs are great perspective providers. They are always happy, no matter what. They are pretty empathetic, too, and have a sense when you need some extra snuggles. Having dogs nearby with happy faces and wagging tails is good, as is taking them for a walk. My husband, of course, is also a great resource, as are my friends, who are there when I need to vent.

Hobbies?

I love to cook. I love to read. I like the Orioles. We have a mini-season pass. I'm pretty invested in them. Errors really make me mad [laughs]. It's nice to have something outside of yourself that you can engage with like that. My secret fantasy is to be a ball girl [laughs].

But you're a Californian—no love of the West Coast MLB teams?

When I was in high school, I went to A's games. I've always been an American League person. I lived in Boston for a year, the famous year of Bill Buckner and the ball between the legs. Those fans are passionate. I remember after the game learning that there were grievance counselors being made available throughout the city for the poor people who'd been so heartbroken. My husband grew up an Orioles fan and was always a big fan, so I've generally been a baseball fan without tremendous allegiance. But now I'm vested.

You sound like an ideal dean of Arts and Sciences, with so many varied interests and so much training in your background.

I like to think I have diverse perspectives, and I look forward to learning more about the nonscience disciplines here.

Have you had time yet to think about ongoing initiatives, such as what your predecessor has done for the arts, and how you might want to advance them?

I haven't had enough time yet in terms of strategic planning and determination of any kind of redirections I want to make happen. Certainly, we have a lot of investments committed to the Station North project, for example, and I fully understand the interest of our students, both current and prospective, in having some kind of arts outlet. That will certainly continue, and it's an important facet of what our school needs to be engaged with. Beyond that, I don't really have any specific further arts-related investment in mind at the moment; we need to consolidate the investments we have made and let those things take shape.

What sort of challenges lie ahead for the Krieger School?

I definitely feel we're on a positive trajectory, without a doubt. It's an exciting time, and I appreciate the president's interest and investments in the Krieger School, and all the undergraduate programs as a whole. We're in the middle of our fundraising campaign, and we really need to shore up our endowments and scholarships.

What about the future of the humanities and the sustained interest in those disciplines?

Clearly there is more of a demand for careers in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] disciplines, but there is also a very clear need for us to fully embrace the value and benefits of a liberal arts education. We need to raise the recognition of the strength of our humanities in a very positive and proactive way, not defending them or making excuses for why they are important. They are important. We just need to do a better job of extolling their value.

Some of our most successful alumni are students from our humanities departments. That says something. There is a benefit that humanities training provides for how someone learns to think, and how those critical analysis and communications skills translate into a wide variety of things that can make one become a successful person in life, whether it's personally or professionally.

What are the next steps for you?

Right now I'm trying to find time to talk to all the chairs, my vice deans, and as many faculty as I can. And read lots of documents in our files. I guess you can say I'm carving out time to do some careful and well-thought-out strategic planning.

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