Susan A. Henry is a woman of many hats.
She is the first female Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), a former professor of molecular biology and genetics, and the head of a research laboratory.
“I didn’t originally apply for a job as dean,” Henry said, while taking a seat in her modest office, located towards the back of her laboratory in the biotechnology building.
“I was looking for new challenges and actually applied for a different job, however the faculty here suggested I take this job,” she added.
Henry left a position as Carnegie Mellon University’s dean of science to come to Cornell in July of last year.
She had worked at Carnegie Mellon since 1987.
Henry notes her responsibilities here as dean include more than the basic biology and chemistry that she headed at Carnegie Mellon. CALS has four times as many students as Henry’s former Carnegie Mellon population, distributing a wider range of classes to her guidance.
Additionally, her new position excludes areas previously under her care such as math and physics, that are in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Henry said she feels that the many of the disciplines found in CALS show how human knowledge begins specifically, and becomes more generally applicable, such as the CALS business major.
One of Henry’s projects aimed at improving the undergraduate experience is expanding the business major to areas outside of agricultural business.
“It was previously known as ARME [Agricultural Resource and Managerial Economics]. You don’t expect to find a business department called that,” she said.
Within one year, Henry hopes to have a business accrediting committee certify the department so as to encourage more students with an interest in business to apply.
“The undergraduate business program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is a hidden jewel,” she said.
Henry is also taking strides to emphasize the environmental sciences, genomics, biodiversity, computational biology and environmental science majors in order to give undergraduates in the college more options.
Henry herself is involved in the genomics department, being one of the first deans in recent years to conduct an active research lab.
“Some call me a molecular geneticist, a biochemist or a microbiologist,” she noted.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) funds Henry’s research which is focused on Baker’s yeast as a model system for metabolic reactions.
Henry is interested in yeast because it is a very simple eukaryote whose genome is easily sequenced and applied to larger organisms.
Henry’s lab was the first to discover, sequence and clone INO1, an enzyme found in all other eukaryotes.
“It is not common for a dean to do research here,” she said. “It is hard to keep everything going at once.”
One of Henry’s initiatives is to bring CALS into a more active role surrounding genetically engineered organisms. She has put together a task force of faculty and staff members to reexamine Cornell’s role in educating the public to dispel myths about genetically engineered food.
“People just need to talk rationally about [genetically engineered food],” she said.
Henry also wants to talk about the tuition increase.
“We have to maintain a certain level of quality and that costs money,” she said. “I’m sorry to have it happen during my first year as dean … but there was no other option to [continue] to provide statutory and endowed students with the same level of quality.”
Quality is valued highly by Henry, which is why she is reaching out to students, personally taking time to listen and to consider their grievances or praises.
Henry is aware of the fact that students need more group study areas and is therefore working with the academic program office to replace study areas lost because of the Mann Library construction. Also contributing to the shortage of space is the lack of classrooms because of concern about computer theft.
“I want to interact with the students,” she said. “I have been meeting with student ambassadors and want to begin having regular events such as dinner in the dorms to meet students informally.”
When she is not meeting students, researching or fulfilling her duties as dean, Henry enjoys gardening, cooking, looking after her pet snake and knitting.
“I got great wool at the Ithaca farmer’s market,” she advised fellow knitters.
Henry is married and has two children, one of whom is a Ph.D. student of chemistry here at Cornell.
It seems that science runs in the family, for Henry attributes her love of science to her grandmother.
“It was my grandmother who got me into science, showing me plants, local wildlife, bugs and snakes,” Henry said.
She spent much of her childhood at her grandparent’s 300 acre farm in New Hampshire.
Although she is knowledgeable on various sciences, Henry admits that she still has a lot to learn to about the daily workings of CALS, but she will not let this discourage her.
Henry said, “I want to make the administration more transparent and accessible. I want to run things more efficiently. [Cornell] is an outstanding place in terms of intellectual activity. The alumni are great supporters, the faculty is dedicated to teaching and the students are enthusiastic.”
Archived article by Rachel Einschlag