Q&A with incoming College of Science Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm
Incoming College of Science Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm has been burning the candle at both ends as his July 1 starting date at George Mason University approaches
Miralles-Wilhelm comes to Mason from the University of Maryland, where he currently serves as chair and professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science. He is also director of the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Institute for Satellite Earth System Studies.
Miralles-Wilhelm has already held several town halls with members of various departments within Mason’s College of Science so he can get to know his future colleagues and hear what they have to say about the college.
He recently spoke with John Hollis about his plans upon officially starting his new job.
Q. Why Mason? What brings you to Mason’s College of Science?
A. Over the last three or four years, I had been approached by one university or the other about dean positions. I was a little bit hesitant, but when I was approached by Mason, I said “This is one I’ll look at.” I know people at Mason, I know about the growth and I know about the go-getting attitude of the university as a whole. To me, that’s really important.
I think the early attractiveness to Mason was this growth trajectory. When I looked at the way it went from being, in the older times, a primarily teaching institution to moving through the research ranks to becoming R1 ranked. You can actually watch the research expenditures and the funding going up as well. [Taking the job] gives you an opportunity to help shape that growth, to direct that growth and to be part of it. It makes for one exciting career step.
Q. What would you say is your strategic vision for the college?
A. I think Mason has some pretty unique characteristics. First of all, there’s this growth that’s happening. Even if you want to factor out this current [global pandemic] situation, this sort of entrepreneurship DNA the university seems to have will be great for the future. There’ll be a blip, there’ll be a little bit of a plateau, but I think overall the growth will continue to occur.
I think the ability to build a strategy with faculty, with students and within the college that is fairly transparent, inclusive and involves a lot of constituencies is important. Going through that process is going to be very exciting and is going to allow me to learn more about the different pieces of research that are going on at Mason. It’s really a fascinating university.
Q. Why is studying science so important, but especially now in this age of COVID-19?
A. When you think about the big problems the world has—climate change, poverty, violence, overall environmental degradation beyond climate change and urban development for starters—all of these problems involve science one way or the other. The classic philosophy of managing science at academic institutions is to constrain science to the purely scientific realm. That means basically in physics, you do atomic physics; in biology, you do molecular biology and so on. I think the types of problems that humanity is facing moving forward require every discipline—science in particular—to really move beyond its boundary. I think that COVID-19 has really exposed this in a way that no living individual has seen. And it’s done so in a time frame that is so reduced that it has really sharpened the perspective of the importance of science in societal problems. That’s something we have to harness and take advantage of over the next few years. I think the College of Science at Mason is really well positioned to do it.
Q. You’ve often spoken of “eternal learning.” Why is that so important for scientists, especially now?
A. Problems have gotten different and more complex. Scientists need to step up to the challenge and evolve to be able to tackle them. That involves working outside your disciplines, working outside your comfort zone. In academia, you get the opportunity to re-invent yourself many times over. This allows people to tackle a variety of problems.
Q. Diversity has long been a staple of Mason. Why is diversity particularly important in learning and research within Mason’s College of Science?
A. This is something that is incredibly important to me. Every study that we’ve seen in terms of the impacts of participation of a diverse group of people in science points to the fact that you get better results, you get results that are more impactful as you involve a wider diversity of people. On a more personal level, I grew up in in Venezuela, South America, and my career has been enlightened by interacting with different groups of people: as I moved to the U.S. for grad school, as I worked in the industry, as I worked in international organizations, as I worked in other universities. I’ve come to appreciate the contributions that scientists from all over the world make in the field.
Q. You accepted this job just three days before the university closed its campuses in response to COVID-19. How much has that job changed since your agreeing to take it?
A. Someone asked me how I felt about switching jobs in all this mess, which was a valid question. There was some natural initial anxiety, but I became excited the more I thought about it. Maybe this is the time to come in and help accelerate the changes I feel universities need to do. In order to attract more and better students, in order to attract better and more faculty, in order to make a university a dynamic and thriving institution of knowledge, I think we need to embrace new ways of doing things. I think right now, this offers the opportunity to really move quicker. So whatever I was thinking my job was going to be for the next five years or whatever has changed dramatically.
Q. What do you want students and other faculty, staff and partners to gain from your tenure as dean?
A. I think the ability to build a shared vision for the college and one that extends beyond the college. Certainly, we want the college to be an exciting place to come and work for faculty and staff, an exciting place to study for the students. But also, we want to encourage excitement and a sense of ownership of the College of Science by folks outside the College of Science. That means other colleges within the university, as well other parts of the fabric of the other institutions in Northern Virginia area, the state of Virginia and nationally and internationally. I want to build a variety of stakeholders that spans all these scales, but do it in a way where everybody feels included.