Sonia Altizer, Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Ecology, will start her new role as interim dean of the Odum School of Ecology on July 1, 2021. She has worked within the school since 2005 and has served in many different roles, including as associate dean since 2012. She was interviewed by Amanda Budd, AB ’23.
Amanda Budd: You have been an associate dean for the Odum School of Ecology for nearly 9 years, first as associate dean for academic affairs and then for research and operations. What skills did you learn in these positions that you think will be especially helpful as interim dean?
Sonia Altizer: One of the most important aspects of leadership is working with people, and supporting people to advance new programs and coordinate initiatives. My past leadership experiences also gave me the opportunity to liaise with the upper administration and think about how to balance the priorities of the university-level leadership with the needs of our unit. I also learned that you have to have thick skin, the ability to take criticism, and the ability to listen to new ideas.
AB: What are you looking forward to most about the new position?
SA: It’s exciting to see opportunities for program development and move them forward. I also enjoy helping people make connections to further their work, whether it’s education, research or leadership opportunities.
AB: Are you planning to continue your research and teaching?
SA: The joys of discovery and training students are what drew me into academic science, so I really want to keep a toe in the world of research and mentoring. But I’ll have to scale back my lab, and I will not be teaching next year as interim dean.
AB: What kind of initiatives or ideas within the school do you want to promote as dean?
SA: Our unit recognizes that a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is a centerpiece of a vibrant and engaging school. A top priority is to focus on the recruitment and retention of colleagues that represent gender, racial, and other forms of diversity. We also need to look at ways to sustainably grow our graduate and undergraduate degree programs, while continuing to support rich experiences and a strong mentoring network for our students. In the near term we can also look at ways to increase connections with other units on campus through hiring and interdisciplinary research initiatives.
AB: Especially over the past year or so, conversations regarding inequity in STEM have become more prevalent. How do you plan to promote diversity and inclusion within Odum?
SA: There are great models for promoting diversity and inclusion through university-wide hiring and mentoring initiatives at the postdoctoral, faculty, and senior leadership levels. We can look to successful efforts at places like Columbia, Emory, Penn State for examples. We also need to listen to our students and junior colleagues who have great ideas for interrupting our ‘business as usual’ approach.
AB: Have you started the transition process into your new role? What has that process been like so far?
SA: Yes, Dean Gittleman and I started meeting in April to discuss navigating the role of Dean, and I’m grateful to learn from his example and benefit from his archived notes and advice. We are also recruiting talented faculty to serve new terms as associate deans and in other leadership roles.
AB: What challenges are you most looking forward to tackling?
SA: Space is a long-standing challenge – both quantity and quality. We need to create new space and revitalize and rethink existing space use to meet our research and instructional needs. There are some exciting and creative ways to do this, and to simultaneously support new programs and collaborations.
AB: What do you want Odum to represent for students, faculty and staff under your leadership?
SA: I love hearing about the amazing things our faculty, students and staff are doing, and sharing these stories with people in the community, across the university, and beyond UGA. I would love for Odum to continue to blaze new pathways in ecological research and strengthen our connections with the local and global community.
AB: Is there anything else you want us to know?
SA: I’d like to thank the faculty, staff and students for their efforts in getting us through the past year and keeping our academic and research programs going during a global pandemic. The people I work with inspire me every day. The coming year will bring challenges, in part as I learn the ropes of the Dean’s role, and as our unit adjusts to a different leadership style. I’ve long said – and continue to believe – that it’s hard for me to imagine a better group of colleagues than what we have in the Odum School. It’s an incredible place to work.