The new dean of the John V. Roach Honors College says resiliency is an important lesson for high achievers.
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Topics: Faculty Q&A, John V. Roach Honors College
What role do you think honors studies play in higher education?
Photo by Glen E. Ellman
An honors program is a very clear visual representation that the institution cares about high-achieving students, the motivated kind who want to go the extra mile. Some students with this high-achieving nature, when they get to a university, they don’t find the challenges they need. So they often go backward. They don’t develop their full potential. They don’t push themselves as hard as they can if they don’t have people to challenge them, and they miss out on being the best they can be. Honors also helps students fail, to know what failure feels like. They can then pick themselves back up, dust themselves off and do it again in a safe environment with mentors around them. We need to be creating students who have that kind of resiliency and street smarts, who know how to navigate their paths through education and beyond.
Other than modeling resiliency, how can mentors influence the college experience?
Mentorship is one of the most important pieces, which is why I want to invest wholeheartedly in the faculty at the Honors College. I want faculty to be the best mentors they can be because each and every one of our students is unique. They all come with different experiences and have different levels of preparedness even though they’re honors students.
A mentor is somebody who can really listen to students, find out what their goals are and help them identify the places they might need to be to get ready for the careers they have in mind. Mentors also sometimes slow students down a little bit and help them do their own reflection. The reflective component is a really big piece of honors work. If you don’t think about what you just learned or how you learned it, it’s not true learning. And it’s especially important for today’s students because they are pushed through school at such a rapid pace.
Speaking of mentorship, you received the Sarah Bennett Holmes Award in 2010 for championing young women. Recruiting women into science and math fields is part of your life’s work. Do you think women bring specific advantages to the STEM fields?
Yes, I think women bring a unique way of knowing, a unique way of processing information. But it’s even bigger than that. The biggest goal is diversity, period. It’s bringing all kinds of different perspectives. If you have a group of like-minded thinkers, you’re only going to get one possible set of outcomes.
Does the Honors College teach leadership skills, especially for students who may not consider themselves leaders?
Yes, leadership is an important part of an honors education. One of the ways we cultivate that is to help students understand that everyone has leadership potential, but it might look different from person to person. The word leadership gets thrown around quite a bit, and it usually refers to some strong, extroverted, dynamic personality who is pulling others by a chain. But there are so many forms of leadership that don’t involve anything like that.
We’re trying to help students be very self-aware, to be reflective and to understand how they fit into society. By the time they leave, they’re life-ready, which means by definition that they’re also career-ready. But they’ll be ready for so much more. They’ll be good citizens, and they’ll be good parents and colleagues and people who are ready for the world.
What is your vision for the future of the John V. Roach Honors College?
I think vision is more of an interpretive skill than an inventive one. I did a listening tour where I met people who’ve been here in the trenches and know what’s needed on this campus and know the unique flavor and nature of TCU students and faculty members. Right now we’re building up the governance for the college. We’re growing the number of faculty and staff. It’s really important because, unlike the other academic colleges at TCU, Honors is the enrichment unit. Honors students aren’t our students. They are the students of every other discipline on campus. And what we do is help all those other colleges provide enrichment for their students.
You’re a big advocate of undergraduate research, having been the director of undergraduate research at the University of Kentucky before coming to TCU. Did you do research as an undergraduate?
I did. I had the opportunity through word of mouth, since it wasn’t very common when I was an undergraduate student [at the University of Akron, Ohio]. Dr. Judith Finkelstein was doing work on genetically obese Zucker rats. So who wouldn’t run at that opportunity, right?
Once we worked out the details, she opened a closet door, and there was a microscope with a little table and chair next to it. And that was my job, to sit in that chair, look through the microscope and go through all these slides just to mark yes or no on whether certain brain cells were stained.
I had the realization to myself that, ‘Wow, I must really like this science,’ or I would have run away very quickly.
Your doctoral research is in neuroscience, specifically nerve regeneration after spinal cord injuries. How did you get into that area of study?
My first interest in neuroscience was from a developmental standpoint. I was really interested in how the nervous system went from a simple neural tube to the amazing complexity of a fully formed central nervous system. In the root of trying to get to that, I encountered a graduate mentor who was really enthusiastic about his work, and he just happened to be working in the area of spinal cord injury.
So it wasn’t very long before the nature of my work was looking for a potential cure for spinal cord injury. Of course anything any of us do is just one tiny piece in a much larger puzzle, but I can say now, after 30 years in the field, that my work had an influence. What we did revealed a new aspect to spinal cord injury and potential therapies for that, and it sparked a whole new field within neuroscience of studying chondroitin sulphate proteoglycans and their role as inhibitors of new growth.
You are a prolific author of scientific journal articles, having written more than 50. For people who aren’t familiar with scientific writing, how it is different from the type of reporting people see in popular media?
When I first started as a young graduate student, I would say that scientific writing was rather boring. If you wanted your work published, you had to state the facts and nothing but the facts.
Over the years, I think scientists have come to realize that telling a story is really important. It’s changed over time. There might be a bit more exactness to the process of scientific writing, but it still benefits from the beauty of storytelling.
There is a public debate raging over whether academic journals should be offered to interested parties for free. Do you have an opinion on that?
We have become one people on one Earth, and I think we need to be able to open up the avenues for sharing information just as fast as we possibly can. If charging for something impedes sharing knowledge, which I think it does, then yes, I agree that information sharing should be free.
Scientific research requires considerable funding. The U.S. government is curtailing its research budget, but nonprofit organizations, as well as for-profit businesses, are stepping in to fill the funding void. Should scientific researchers embrace all financial support, or should they be wary of the motives of for-profit companies that offer to fund their studies?
It’s a huge mistake when a society decides to not invest in research, the fundamental knowledge of its people. That is something that we need more than ever. We need to have educated people, so we should be investing in worthwhile research.
However, we can’t do a 180 and just turn to taking money from anybody who will give it to us because too many people have an agenda, which will warp the science. If we have people who are guiding research to fit a particular agenda, then that’s just as bad as not doing it at all. So we have to operate somewhere in this middle zone, where people invest because they want the truth, and we need to allow researchers to use the methods and practices that we know are the best ways to get to truth. We’re trying to find out how things work, what the truth is, and how to get accurate information to people so they can make excellent decisions for themselves and for the world.
— Caroline Collier
Editor’s note: The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
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