Valery Forbes is serious about collaboration. Her own work on ecotoxicology and ecological risk assessment intersects with multiple disciplines including computer science, mathematics and social science. She spent nearly two decades as an academic leader at a European university building connections with researchers across the continent and around the world before moving to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Now, she is looking to support greater collaboration within the biological sciences in her new role as dean of the College of Biological Sciences. Forbes took time out to reflect on how past experiences shaped her as an academic leader and how she plans to move the college forward.
CBS turned 50 this year. As we reflect on the past and celebrate this historic milestone, can you tell tell us about your vision for the future of the college?
One of the things that drew me to CBS is that it is a college encompassing all of biology — from molecules to ecosystems. I think this presents huge opportunities, if we in the CBS community are willing to embrace them. There have been many recent technological advances at lower levels of biological organization — all of the “omics” technologies, bioinformatics, high-throughput techniques, etc. that give us a lot of information about what is happening at molecular and cellular levels of organization. However, many of the problems that we need to solve, whether related to human health or environmental issues, require answers at higher levels of organization — from whole organism performance, through population and community dynamics, to ecosystem service delivery. To me, this means that biologists working across these levels need to develop stronger collaborations and, to be precise, collaborations that lead to the development of a more predictive biology. For me this means a much more prominent role of mechanistic, process-based modeling that can, among other things, allow us to do experiments at spatial and temporal scales that we could not do empirically for practical reasons.
Collaboration is a major theme in your own research. What opportunities do you see for greater collaboration as dean of a college focusing on the biological sciences?
The problems we face as society are formidable, and the only way that we’ll have a chance at solving them is through multidisciplinary collaborations. Let’s take climate change as an example. Not only do we need to understand the physical, chemical, and biological phenomena that are occurring, we need to be able to translate those into robust predictions (in comes the mathematics, statistics, and computer science). But that is not enough. We need to engage with policy makers, industry, NGOs, and the public in general (in come the social and behavioral sciences) in order for the science to be used in decision making.
You spent many years at Roskilde University in Denmark where you were a professor and administrator. How has that international experience shaped you as an academic leader?
The emphasis in Danish and European science is very much about promoting internationalization. The European Union has made huge strides in facilitating (some would say forcing) collaborations across national boundaries. I would say that these efforts have had an amazingly positive effect on European research. I participated in a few large multi-institutional and multi-country research projects that allowed me to do much better science than I ever could have done as a single investigator. I think that the United States is somewhat behind on this front, and I hope to contribute to changing that. Of course other aspects of living abroad are not to be underestimated. Seeing one’s country from the outside is incredibly enlightening and helps you appreciate things typically taken for granted (like the fact that if you’re born in this country you are automatically a citizen – this is not true most places). Also learning to be functional in a foreign language is a really good (if painful) experience. So if there are any CBS folks who want to keep up their Danish I’m looking for someone to talk to.
What are the emerging paths you see for students just getting started in the biological sciences?
There are so many different career opportunities out there today, and I suspect we’ll see entirely new job categories in the coming years as technological innovations continue to develop. I expect there to be new niches in health care with developments in personalized medicine and increased focus on disease prevention. On the environmental side, understanding, predicting and effectively mitigating human impacts on biological systems will continue to challenge us and provide new opportunities. I also see a growing trend to combine biology with other fields such as law, policy, economics, and other fields to create novel career paths.
What are you most looking forward to in the next academic year?
I’m really looking forward to getting to know the CBS faculty, staff and students, and to working with them to see how we can make the college even stronger. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by talented faculty, professional staff, and engaged students, and I think we have huge opportunities to really make a difference — in biology education, in internationally-recognized research, and in engagement with industry, government, the public, and other stakeholders. I’m looking forward to it all!
On a lighter note, what was the first thing you did when you learned you would become the college’s next dean?
I wondered what on earth I was going to do with my collection of Husker-red T-shirts! In all seriousness, I was extremely excited that this potential opportunity became a reality and immediately started to think about the best way to engage the CBS community in developing a strategy for the future. At the same time, I felt a strong sense of responsibility toward the school I had been directing for the last four-and-a-half years and eager to ensure that all of the good things I put into place would stay on track and put the school in a strong position to find its next director. And my husband and I may have had a glass of celebratory champagne.