A Q&A with Laurie Parker

The College’s new associate dean for undergraduate education shares her thoughts on opportunities to enhance the student experience, how to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, and more.
July 13, 2021

Laurie Parker joined the College’s Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics as a faculty member in 2014. Since then, she’s served in a number of leadership roles including taking over as principal investigator of a grant to boost inclusive practices in the classroom. Now, she’s been tapped to serve as the College’s associate dean for undergraduate education. We asked her about what appeals to her about the role and her plans for improving the student experience in CBS.


Can you give a brief overview of other academic leadership positions you’ve held and a few takeaways from those experiences?
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to take over as PI on Robin Wright’s HHMI Pathways to Success Inclusive Excellence grant program from 2017-2020, where I learned so much about the approaches for and benefits of peer mentoring for students, as well as how best to support faculty in establishing inclusive practices in the classroom. I also bring 11 years of undergraduate classroom teaching experience, having taught life sciences-oriented organic chemistry for pre-pharmacy students at Purdue University for six years, followed by upper-level biochemistry and a module at the summer Nature of Life orientation sessions here at UMN since moving here in 2014. I also served as director of graduate studies for the BMBB Graduate Program for three years, where I developed many collegial relationships with leaders in the Graduate School and of other graduate and professional programs (here and at other universities), and gained skills and insights that I can bring to bear for supporting undergraduate students interested in those training and career paths.

What attracted you to the role of associate dean for undergraduate education?
As a stand-alone College of Biological Sciences, we have a really unique situation relative to other biology programs around the country, in which students can enter directly into our College either right away as they start at UMN or transfer in from within or outside UMN. That gives us opportunities right from the beginning of our students’ time with us to examine and shape our culture, build our curricula, programming and systems in ways we think will best support our students, and to collect data to see how our students are learning and experiencing CBS over time. This creates a lot of exciting options for how to engage in this role in an informed way. I was really attracted to the possibilities to get more involved and champion the work our faculty and staff are doing to enhance student experiences while holistically preparing them for their next steps in the context of a rigorous biology degree.

What opportunities do you see to enhance the experience of CBS undergraduates?

  • Scholarship of undergraduate education in CBS. Along with the level of educational excellence contributed by our individual departments and faculty, CBS has two particular stand-out strengths: the Department of Biology Teaching and Learning, and the flagship Nature of Life program. Each of these gives us unique advantages for serving our students, and combined they position CBS as a national powerhouse in undergraduate biology education. The exceptional research scholarship in BTL merges and elevates the teaching and research missions of the College to a level beyond most other universities in the country. Similarly, the ways NOL combines peer mentoring, metacognitive support for learning, comprehensive data collection, and quantitative assessment measures are at the cutting edge. In addition to maintaining the current synergy between these two programs, I am very enthusiastic to support strengthening and increasing the connections between the research efforts in BTL and programmatic development for NOL, as together they remain a key avenue for advancing inclusive excellence in the College in the coming years.
  • Inclusive undergraduate research opportunities. Working with undergraduates has always been one of my favorite aspects of doing research. The practical skills and intellectual development gained through real-world research problem solving are critical parts of science identity that are hard to obtain by any other means. CBS is committed to supporting our students to engage in authentic research experiences, and as we work towards growing and developing the undergraduate research component of our curriculum, it will be vital to make sure it is accessible, equitable and inclusive for all students, and to support faculty in making enriching, meaningful research opportunities available. I am looking forward to working creatively to help support the College in developing these efforts, along with our new CBS Faculty Undergraduate Research Coordinator Dana Davis.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are a high priority for you. Can you talk about ways you will advance that work in your new role?
I am excited to help engage our CBS community in identifying and changing structures in our undergraduate experience that are shaped by and/or contribute to systemic racism, based on the initial efforts of our CBS Anti-Racism working group and a parallel group formed by the alumni, and informed by best practices from the work going on around campus and around the country. Some first steps on my end include supporting Fran Wood and Brittany Eich as they integrate follow-up to the online Gopher Equity Project training into the Nature of Life course as focused conversations, which give students time in their smaller NOL groups to process, share, and be vulnerable together, building trust to have meaningful, challenging discussions. To build real community, we need to connect in these ways--I am passionate about supporting this area and contributing to keeping these conversations open and active. I am also enthusiastic about continuing a version of the Faculty Fellows for Inclusive Excellence program developed as part of the HHMI grant, which supports faculty in learning how to create an inclusive classroom environment to best serve all of their students and identify where they can make changes when needed. Related to what I mentioned above about undergraduate research, I am also very excited about the CBS Dean’s Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunities program, which is helping fund undergraduate projects over the summer and looking to expand into a year-round program, and the GopheResearch database developed by CBS student Kashif Qureshi, which can connect undergraduates with research opportunities supported as UROP projects, Directed Research for credit, or as paid positions. These kinds of resources help make sure access to research opportunities is more equitable, and not as skewed towards those who already have connections and/or who can afford the time to volunteer. Overall, I am heartened to see CBS’s commitment to make real change and hopeful for the promise it brings.