Dean Barbara Schaal looks ahead

Editorial note: Washington University recently made the tough decision to move all instruction online for the remainder of the semester due to concerns over COVID-19. Though many students and faculty will be based off campus in the coming months, we remain an Arts & Sciences community. We hope that Ampersand stories from across Arts & Sciences – including this update from Dean Schaal – will help connect our community with their WashU home during these challenging times.


After seven years at the helm of Arts & Sciences, Barbara Schaal will step down from her role as dean at the end of this academic year. As Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences and a leading figure in organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Schaal has worked tirelessly to elevate Arts & Sciences at Washington University and advocate for the role of science in public policy. Post-deanship, Schaal plans to continue promoting science and the liberal arts – both at the university and on the national stage. She sat down with the Ampersand to outline some of her plans going forward.  

1. Return to national science advisory work

"One of the things that I haven't done as much as I would have liked to while I was dean is continue some of the programs that I've done in Washington. For instance, I'm going to chair the Board on Life Sciences for the National Academies. This is a group that decides what are exciting areas in biology and the life sciences and then develops projects around those areas. One of these important areas is the emergence of new pathogens, particularly zoonotic diseases that come from an animal and then jump to humans. It’s a really complex problem because it ranges all the way from medicine, through ecology and animal husbandry, and then to human culture – what people eat, where they live, and what they think is beneficial. It’s the type of issue that needs to be examined in a really broad way, setting it in a cultural and ecological context. The current spread of COVID-19, which has affected our own campus and so many people around the world, makes this area of study all the more imperative. 

I'm also chairing some work on STEM education for the National Academy and continuing to work with AAAS. There's going to be an interesting project here in Missouri developing a fellowship program analogous to AAAS fellowships, except doing it in within states. Missouri is one of the pilot programs. The plan is to develop fellowships for recent science PhDs that are interested in politics and policy."


2. Contribute to research efforts on the evolutionary biology of plants

"Obviously, I want to be involved in research as well. I’ve made plans – now temporarily on hold because of the coronavirus – to work with colleagues on projects in Taipei and Chiang Mai in Thailand. In the past, we've looked at indigenous rice varieties and how they've adapted to climate change. In Thailand there are hills tall enough that the climate varies as elevation changes. My colleagues have been able to show that a given rice variety will adapt specifically to those elevations. Climate change has affected some of the pathogens and some of the insect herbivores as well. We've been able to show that not only does the rice adapt to a different flowering schedule, but it also has adapted to some of these herbivores. That’s been really interesting, and I think that would be a very fruitful kind of work to pursue."


3. Return to the classroom – both as a teacher and a student

"I’m looking forward to teaching again. Our students are so smart, diligent, and energetic. I used to teach a course on plants, people, and the environment for non-science-majors. It was a fun challenge to get the students really excited about plants. They approached issues from very different perspectives, and that turned out being very interesting. Seeing those different perspectives has helped shape the way that I think about a number of things. This is a terrific benefit of teaching.

One of the things I'm going to do on my sabbatical is take some classes at the Center for Teaching and Learning. There has been tremendous progress from research in education and psychology on how we learn and how to incorporate that knowledge into the classroom. I'm somewhat familiar with many of these ideas but want to learn the nuances of how to implement these developments in my own teaching."


4. Continue supporting the liberal arts

"I've always been an advocate, and after being dean, I’m a fervent advocate for a liberal arts education. I'm convinced that if you want to have a satisfying life, if you want to have a productive career, if you want to be able to make informed decisions, you need to have an understanding of social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. The combination of all these areas is deeply important since they add different perspectives. Moreover, we need the humanities now more than ever. They allow you to see the world through someone else's eyes, and to understand that people have different and valid perspectives. They teach you to be analytical, to read a text critically, and to write carefully. These are all skills that are essential and transferable. And these are the skills that increasing numbers of employers look for.

For example, climate change is an overarching issue. Climate change influences so many different aspects and ranges from affecting the urban environment to the rise of ocean levels and emergence of novel pathogens.  In many ways it's much more difficult to determine how people will react to a change than it is to understand the science behind that change. The science obviously can be very challenging. But to understand how you implement a policy, how you predict economic changes or the social consequences of various decisions – that is really hard as well.

It has been a privilege to serve as dean. I’ve developed great respect for our faculty and have learned so much from them. They meet our high expectations to be both outstanding educators and outstanding scholars. Likewise, it has been a privilege to work with my fellow administrators. They have a deep dedication to the academy and to Washington University. I owe the most to the great staff and deans in the A&S office. We’ve accomplished a lot and worked hard, with dedication, humor, and much food. It's also been wonderfully rewarding to interact with our alumni and to see how their experiences here have changed their life trajectories."