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'The best job in the world'
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For the past 15 years, Linda Maxson has had “the best job in the world.” Every day, she gets to work with biologists like herself, musicians and artists, journalists and social workers as dean of the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS).
Much has changed during those 15 years—the college was renamed, 10 buildings were constructed or renovated, and there continues to be ongoing recovery from the 2008 flood. Maxson has hired more than 300 of the 600-plus current faculty members in CLAS, and 43,000 students have earned bachelor’s degrees from the university’s largest college during her tenure.
And there have been a lot of frogs. Frog earrings, frog paintings, glass frogs, frog pins.
Maxson can tell you where each item came from.
“People bring these to me; they all try to bring me something I don’t already have,” she says. “They see a frog and they think, ‘I have to get that for Linda.’
“You could say I’ve heightened people’s awareness of frogs.”
Maxson, who was born in New York City but raised just outside of Detroit, attended San Diego State University (SDSU), earning a Bachelor of Science in zoology and a Master of Arts in biology. She later earned a Ph.D. in genetics through a joint doctoral program from the University of California at Berkeley and SDSU.
Before becoming dean of CLAS, she taught and administered at universities including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Penn State. Maxson also served as the associate vice chancellor and dean of undergraduate academic affairs at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. While at these institutions, Maxson founded several academic student programs that are, to this day, still in place.
As a scientist, Maxson has had a distinguished career in molecular evolutionary biology. She did fieldwork on four continents, published more than 115 papers in premier journals, and authored three editions of a genetics textbook. The National Science Foundation continuously supported her research in molecular systematics for more than 20 years. A recipient of the Distinguished Herpetologist Award of the Herpetologists’ League, she is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
On June 30, Maxson will step down from her position as dean and will serve on the faculty of the Department of Biology. Recently, Maxson took some time away from packing up all those frogs to talk about her time as dean and what comes next.
What is it about frogs that fascinates you?
My first research experience was in human genetics and the inheritance of cystic fibrosis. My next research project was with my honors adviser, who at the time was studying population genetics of frogs. My first assignment: catch frogs, breed them, and raise the tadpoles to study the inheritance of color in these little tree frogs.
I went on to get my doctorate in the lab that was working on the timing of human evolution (when the first human appeared in the fossil record). They needed someone to do parallel work on evolutionary timing of an organism that wasn’t as emotion-laden as humans. I was interested in rates of change and evolution. Frogs are very old organisms, appearing in the fossil record several hundreds of millions of years ago, but anytime you see a frog—and there are more than 6,000 species of frogs—you’ll always recognize it as a frog, because all the species look like frogs. Mammals (of which there are also about 6,000 species), however, have evolved into very different body forms from species to species, and have done so in a comparatively short period of time (about 60 million years). That difference in rates of change interested me. I became the frog expert, and it just blossomed into some really interesting research.
With research you never know where you’re going; you just follow wherever it takes you. Frogs became an interesting organism that were good to study for the questions I was interested in asking.
What are some of the challenges you face as the dean of the largest undergraduate college on campus?
There are several; it depends on the time of year. One is that we never seem to have enough resources to do the kinds of things we would like to do, in terms of people, staff, money, and buildings to house the programs we want to offer our students. CLAS has complex needs because we are the primary undergraduate college. CLAS is a very diverse student body with more than 50 different majors, and we’re not allowed to request tuition surcharges for our students. Consequently, we just don’t have the resources we think the students in the college deserve, making my work even more challenging to implement needed changes.
What about some of the joys of your job?
I like being able to facilitate the work of the faculty, both in the classroom and in their scholarship and creative activity. I try to help find ways to provide the faculty with the resources they need to keep students working in their laboratories on their research projects, to make it a little easier for our current faculty than it was when I was coming through the system. I also want to provide many more opportunities for students to be actively engaged with our faculty in their work.
What are you thinking about doing after you step down?
I have some time off to catch back up to the nondean real world. I’ll be going back to my appointment in biology for a few years.
I used to teach a course in genetics for nonscience majors. I wrote several editions of a book on that. It’s been one of my passions all along to help people who are not science majors and who are frightened by science to understand and appreciate the beauty and excitement of our understanding of science today, particularly genetics for humans as it impacts everyday life and the world around us.
As part of that, there’s been a big push around the country and in Iowa to try and improve STEM teaching—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—particularly in K-12. The governor has a big STEM initiative. I’d like to do some additional work trying to utilize our students and faculty in the sciences to reach out to help those folks in K-12 who teach science and math—help them feel more comfortable with it, bring them up to speed through some programs on campus. I’m going to work on really firming up STEM presence and STEM teaching in the state of Iowa. I’m working on some proposals to make that happen.