Joe Jez talks about his first year as Biology Chair

Joe Jez began his new journey as Biology Chair on July 1, 2018. One year later, he reflects on what he’s learned and how he would like to see the department move forward in the future.

Previous chair, Kathy Miller, fortunately left fantastic notes and provided Joe with a chair’s calendar to alert him to deadlines regarding promotions, curriculum review, faculty meetings and other important tasks. This was helpful when it came to the nuts and bolts, giving him a fuller picture of the variety of the chair’s responsibilities. Other challenges he faced included new hires, planning for major construction projects in Busch Lab and Rebstock Hall, and a STEM review ordered by the Dean’s office last year for the introductory bio courses Bio 2960 and 2970: Principles of Biology I and II.

As chair, Joe now realizes how many pieces are in motion to make the department go round and has a greater appreciation for how much everyone does across the department. One initiative Joe has been working on for the past year is gathering tenured faculty, teaching faculty and administrative staff into a committee structure. His hope is that the department will have a stronger foundation if there are more voices and opinions from different areas looking at problems from different angles, and more people involved in making decisions and addressing issues.

Joe started several committees including Adjunct, Communications, Diversity & Inclusion, Infrastructure, and Staff (along with existing Advisory & Curriculum committees). He appointed members from a variety of areas, encouraging those people to get to know each other. Due to the large size of our department and segregation of different areas, most of our faculty and staff don’t have a sense of the full breadth of what is happening in the department. He is hoping to demystify the processes in different areas. He plans to charge the committees with diving into issues that come up, but also hopes that as members get more comfortable with one another, the committees will start to formulate what they would like to address as well.

Joe’s future goals include more connection between different areas and different types of faculty and staff; modernizing the biology curriculum; and growing the department by increasing the number of faculty and amount of space (a re-occuring dream of each previous chair!).

Joe stressed the need to keep looking ahead regarding curriculum, teaching cutting edge science in innovative ways. Wash U is well-known for its pre-med curriculum. One challenge will be how to maintain that emphasis on pre-med based curriculum, but balance it with research-based curriculum in scientific areas other than medicine. The university has an ever growing number of undergrads declaring bio majors, yet our faculty and space have stayed relatively the same. The number of majors has nearly doubled over the last 10 years!

Recently Joe was asked “What would it take to put our Biology Department in the top 10 list of Biology Departments in the country?” We need to grow our faculty in areas on the frontier of science. We need cutting edge teaching, staying ahead of the curve, and growth in areas of science (especially regarding big data), and continue to grow and thrive in areas that distinguish us from other institutions. We need to build an infrastructure that supports data science, new methods of microscopy, mass spectrometry and genome information. Biology faculty need to make a clear and compelling case to the University for modernizing our department, investing in more faculty and space.

Joe also believes we need to be exploring ways to work together with other departments such as Environmental Studies and Earth and Planetary Sciences, and other institutions such as InCEES, Wash U Med School, and the McKelvy School of Engineering. We should be thinking about how we can strengthen each other through partnerships, and how we can identify these and sync up with timing and funding. Broadening our horizons could help with the future efforts to grow our department with the administration of the university. Overall, Joe hopes to help break down definitions of the department based on individual perspectives, and hopes committees will help everyone see the bigger picture and work together toward it.