With the new Dean of the Duke Graduate School about research, mentoring and how to help graduate students to succeed

Author: 
Emilia Chiscop-Head, PhD, Scientific Integrity Associate, ASIST

“Excellence in science is not just about having a bunch of “R-01s”. It's also about treating people fairly, being interested in people because of the unique talents they bring to the table”, says Dr. Suzanne Barbour

The newly appointed Dean of the Duke Graduate School, Suzanne Barbour is a national leader in graduate education, scholarly research, teaching and mentoring. Dean Barbour has a long career as a graduate school dean: she served in this role at UNC since 2019 after she had been the dean of the graduate school at the University of Georgia, where she oversaw 250 graduate programs. Her career in graduate studies leadership started as the director of a graduate program in biochemistry and molecular Biology at the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University where she also directed research training at the Center on Health Disparities and held affiliate appointments in the departments of African American studies, biology, and microbiology and immunology. Barbour served for more than a decade on minority’ affairs committee of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and is currently in her second term as a member of the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering. She is a member of the Council of Graduate Schools Board of Directors and Graduate Education Advisory Council of the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

 “Graduate students need the support of student affairs just as much as undergraduates do.”

Emilia Chiscop-Head, PhD: Dean Barbour, you are joining Duke as the Dean of The Graduate School after serving in two similar roles at the University of Georgia and UNC.  What excites you most about the graduate school dean profession?

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: I have been associated with graduate education for most of my adult life. When I was running my lab which I loved doing, I might have had four or five students in my lab at once. So there were four or five lives and careers that I could touch.  But when I moved into the role of director of the graduate program in biochemistry, I realized that I could change 50 lives at once, just by making some really critical decisions, and, more importantly, positioning students to make critical decisions about their futures. I spent some time at the National Science Foundation because I needed some administrative experience before I applied for a Graduate Dean position, and then I just got incredibly fortunate to be nominated for the position at the University of Georgia.

Since then I've been a Graduate School Dean at two very different institutions. I'm really excited about joining Duke because it offers me the opportunity to see graduate education through yet another lens at a really critical time in graduate education, when we're having some very important conversations about students as people, parents and adults - folks who need to look after their own well-being. It offers me an opportunity to take on those emerging questions through a new lens, and I find that very, very exciting.

What are some of the goals for the Duke Graduate School, given this critically important moment for graduate education?

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: I know that a lot of great things are happening in the Duke Graduate School. I think there's probably room for even more great things to happen in the professional development space, and that's a huge area of discussion in graduate education right now. Another big area of discussion is related to student affairs for graduate students. In the past, graduate student affairs have been very hands-off. And what we've come to realize especially coming out of the pandemic is that graduate students need the support of student affairs just as much as undergraduates do. I imagine that Duke, like other institutions, has to have that conversation. Another important discussion is how we recruit, and more importantly retain students from underrepresented groups. Students who may not find community in every place where they work on our campus, unfortunately, but may benefit from having a community built to help them in the graduate school. I think there's probably also an opportunity for the graduate school to be involved in helping units around the campus to look really critically at their culture and ask whether they have a culture, or microclimate, that will support all graduate students. There are also great conversations about mentoring. I know that there is a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that funds the Duke University Center of Exemplary Mentoring and I'm really excited about working together on that. Mentoring has a huge impact on graduate student wellness, career decision and progression. So I am very excited about partnering on initiatives to help ensure that every graduate student at Duke has proper mentoring, and feel that they have the support they need to make the critical decisions they have to make as graduate students.

That sounds amazing. I graduated from the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy, from a program aimed primarily to international graduate students, the Master of International Development Policy Program. I can attest that their unique “hands on” approach to student affairs made a big difference for us. What are the accomplishments that you are most proud of during the University of Georgia and UNC mandates?

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: At the University of Georgia we were really well positioned to train students to go into career paths in academia, particularly to be faculty members at research institutions. But we weren't as good at preparing students for non-academic careers or academic careers that weren't at research one institutions, or in faculty roles. And one of the things I'm most proud of at the University of Georgia is that we hired the first director for experiential professional development, responsible for preparing students for non-academic careers by building partnerships with industry, research, think-tanks, and developing really cool programming, workshops and internships to help students explore their interests, their values, and ultimately to develop the skill sets they needed for their careers. At UNC we fleshed this out even more than what we did at Georgia with a whole series of courses in areas like market research, entrepreneurship, leadership and project management, all with the goal of preparing graduate students for non-academic careers. I am very proud of those things. We were talking about mentoring, which is such a key piece for career building. While I was in UNC Chapel Hill we collaborated with the Center for Faculty Excellence, to offer a series of trainings for faculty in best practices in graduate student mentoring. In the future, there are plans to offer a certificate in graduate student mentoring for faculty with the idea that it would be a badge of honor for faculty and something that students can look for when they are selecting an advisor, and they can specifically go after folks who not only have well-funded labs, but, importantly who have a commitment to mentoring and are aware of the best practices.

“The key in mentoring is being able to listen and really hear what people are saying, then to reflect back to them what you're hearing, and then help them to interpret what they're saying in a way that helps them move forward."

How did mentoring help you build your career in research? And what is your mentoring style?

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: Mentoring was the key. My mentor is someone I'm still in contact with. He's a dear friend. I never worked in this lab. I met him in one of my graduate school courses, Advanced Immunology, a course for which I had to write a grant at the end, for the final assignment. He picked me up during the times when things got low when I was a postdoc and junior faculty member; and he was the person who said “You know, the sun may not be shining now, but it'll come back out. You just have to stick with it.” Mentally, this support from a mentor makes all the difference. I think I have been a decent mentor, but I'll never be as good as a mentor as he was. I think the key in mentoring is being able to listen and really hear what people are saying, then to reflect back to them what you're hearing, and then help them to interpret what they're saying in a way that helps them move forward. Whether moving forward is designing the next experiment, or deciding whether it's going to be an academic career or a non-academic career, or sadly even deciding whether to stay in graduate school, I think that listening, hearing and reflecting is a big part of mentoring. The other piece we haven't gotten right yet and we are still thinking about is what some experts call “culturally aware mentoring”, which is based on the idea that everyone brings a different lived experience, a different set of values to the table, and we have to find a way to mentor past our differences. I don't think anybody has a really good handle on that yet and I think that this may be the next frontier for mentoring training.

I know that you are devoted to the idea of ensuring equal opportunities in science and engineering. You serve in the NSF Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering. What do you think that universities and research centers should or could do more to support equal opportunity and justice?

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: I love this question. There are a lot of things that can be done, but I think that, to me, there is a key critical piece that we lack in science. One may say: “Well, isn’t it possible for everybody to lead with integrity and lead in a way that is culturally sensitive?” And the answer is, yes, probably, but not everybody is in a position to inspire and incentivize people to lead in that way. People who are in leadership positions have money, power and influence. Excellence in science is not just about having a bunch of “R-01s”. It's also about treating people fairly, being interested in people because of the unique talents they bring to the table. The key piece that is missing is to have the leadership along those lines. It's important not only to recruit and retain diverse faculty, but also to position them for leadership roles. For the most part, we've all done a less than stellar job with that in the big research one institutions. Sadly, we often use our diverse faculty in minor roles, and they never get the opportunity to be leaders or Vice Presidents for Research. And I really do think that this has to change. I would say, that's the number one thing that institutions need to do.

"The legacy for me is not going to be built just on papers and grants; it's going to be built on people who keep being determined, stubborn, not being swayed from pursuing their dreams. It is the impact that one person can have what inspires me to be yet another person who hopefully can have impact."

How have you succeeded as a woman of color in academia? And what obstacles have you overcome?

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: This is a great question. I think I succeeded because first of all, I’ve had this amazing mentor. I've had the support of a community of women of color who were all striving to be leaders. We supported each other, and I think that made a difference. It also made a huge difference for me, seeing the folks coming along behind me and recognizing that if I don't make it, I am not going to be there to help mentor them and bring the next generation around. As I get toward the latter part of my career, this aspect becomes more and more important to me. I start to ask the question “What's my legacy?” What am I leaving behind? The legacy for me is not going to be built just on papers and grants; it's going to be built on people who keep being determined, stubborn, not being swayed from pursuing their dreams. It is the impact that one person can have what inspires me to be yet another person who hopefully can have impact.

What advice do you have for young scientists and graduate students for increasing their chances to succeed in the sciences?

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: First, find a good mentor or a team of mentors. And remember - those mentors don't necessarily have to look like you or share your lived experience. My mentor is a white guy whose background could not be more different than mine. Find somebody who cares about your future, who's not afraid to tell you the things you need to hear - not just the things you want to hear - someone who cares about you. And also, someone who is having an impact on their own. Even if your mentor cannot understand what your struggles are, they can understand what your opportunities are, and help you to sort the opportunities, work through your troubles and ultimately get where you want to go. So, having a good mentor is number one.

Could you tell us a bit about your research?

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: I closed my lab almost ten years ago. While I haven’t been an active researcher in lipid biochemistry in a while, I stay connected with my science by serving on the editorial board of the Journal of Lipid Research, the Council of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the Advisory Committee of the Biological Sciences Directorate of the National Science Foundation. I am also interested in research in adult education and graduate education which is an emerging field because there are more and more adults, either coming back to school or continuing their schooling. An article that came out a few years ago predicted that 60% of the students will retire from careers that we cannot even imagine at present. So, I am excited about research that focuses on the needs of these life-long learners, the kinds of student affairs and the professional development they will need.

What do you think are the ethical challenges in research?

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: One thing that transcends all social sciences is privacy. A lot of social science research is based on stories which can be incredibly impactful if captured and coded. It is also important to ensure the privacy of the individuals who share their stories.

As I mentioned earlier, I am on the editorial board for the journal in my discipline. A critical issue in this area is reproducibility and rigor. Predictive modeling is an emerging area of research, with ultimate goal of being able to model an entire cell. This exciting endeavor is dependent on reliable data that can be used to construct and train the model and of course the data should be collected in a rigorous and reproducible manner. Thus, rigor and reproducibility is a key ethical challenge for all biosciences and especially in the context of developing new fields, such as predictive cell biology.

I read your article in Higher Ed Works where you emphasized the importance of collaboration in science and the importance of science communication for maximizing social impact...

Suzanne Barbour, PhD: It is rare nowadays to see a paper that has just a student and a PI on it. Typically, papers include many authors from multiple research groups. Collaboration is essential because research is so specialized. Now you have to reach out beyond just your own narrow little group to get the work done. But even more importantly, it's what makes research fun. One of the most fun parts of my research career is going to a meeting to give a talk and having people come up and talk to me afterwards to work on something similar, but not exactly the same thing. This prompts discussions about all the different possibilities and things we could potentially do together. Science is a team sport. Perhaps these teams will offer us the opportunity to hold each other accountable for striking the balance between quantity, quality, competition and collaboration.

Learn more about Suzanne Barbour's goals