Jez reflects on his time as Biology Department Chair

As Biology Department Chair, Joseph Jez, Spencer T. Olin Professor of Biology, learned to navigate new relationships with department colleagues, as well as people at the School of Arts & Sciences level.

Jez went from managing a research lab with a few people, to managing a whole department on a much larger scale, with 30 or more staff, 13 teaching faculty members, plus 33 tenure track faculty members with their own labs, staff, and grad students.

When asked about some of the challenges he faced as Chair, his first answer was a no brainer: COVID. “Everyone, from both personal and professional standpoints, was navigating an unprecedented and complete shutdown of everything, having to make up rules and find workarounds along the way: Zoom meetings, virtual seminars and classes, work from home, guidelines for masking and reduced capacity in classrooms and lab spaces on campus, to name a few. Then trying to get things back to normal after the initial shutdown was equally challenging: the ramp up and restart of research, undergrad students returning to campus, helping faculty and staff figure out how to operate again, and so on. These challenges shone a light on communication issues across the university and helped all of us develop better tools for disseminating information and working together through some difficult and unusual times,” Jez said.

One of Jez’s goals as Chair was to create transparency, and share leadership and responsibility by distributing work and soliciting input from committees. He appointed faculty and staff from across the department in all areas to serve on Chair's Advisory, Staff, Communications, Adjunct Faculty Oversight, Infrastructure, Diversity and Inclusion, and Curriculum committees. Though COVID set things back by a couple of years, his hope is that having committees helped people gain a better understanding of what goes on in the department and how decisions are made, as well as setting things up for the next stage which will be to have more decision makers in the department, not just one Chair.

“Having interaction between faculty, staff, postdocs, and grad students on different committees helps break down barriers between those groups. The more input people have in making decisions, the more transparent the process. This also prepares more individuals to take on leadership roles. If there's only one person out of 45 that can be the Chair, most people won’t have a chance to grow leadership skills. If you have other roles like assistant chairs or committee heads, those people will be more engaged and invested in department leadership, which in turn makes it easier for the Chair to manage things,” Jez explained.

In his last year as Chair, a big initiative was completing the external review for Arts & Sciences, last conducted in 2004. The external review highlighted needs in the department for new teaching spaces and new lab spaces for the addition of several new tenure track faculty members that will happen over the next few years. 

“The scope of what we are, as a department, the complexity of what we are and what we do, is going to grow. Getting things set up for that growth has been a major goal. The university realizes that biology composes 1/10 of the undergraduate population. Biology is a big reason why students come here to St. Louis. We need resources, and we will need even more resources to keep growing. The external review was one of those pieces of the puzzle that gave us a snapshot of where we are, and vision for where we want to be in the future. Now it's just a matter of making the argument to the administration and pitching our plan,” Jez said.

After 5 years of having the opportunity to play a larger role in different areas of research by running the department as Chair, Jez looks forward to turning his focus back to research in his lab. Jez Lab employs biochemistry, protein engineering, and x-ray crystallography to investigate the molecular basis of biological processes in plants, microbes, and nematodes. He is currently exploring a collaboration with research staff at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a Department of Energy research center, about a big project and some new directions for Jez Lab. He is also planning a road trip to see different historic sites and National Parks, and visit colleges with his daughter, across the country.

“When I began my term as Chair in 2018, I wanted the teaching faculty to have a bigger role, I wanted the staff to have more of a sense of belonging, and to grow the department. Now that I’m at the end of it, we have new teaching lab spaces on the horizon, committee members with years of experience working on department initiatives, and the opening up of the research base with several new faculty hires that will happen over the next few years. I feel satisfied that I’ve been able to set the ball up, so that the next Chair (i.e., Ram Dixit) can spike it over the net,” Jez reflected.