Campus & Community

Christopher Stubbs named dean of science

Christopher Stubbs

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

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Physicist shares vision for connecting with faculty, students

Christopher Stubbs, the Samuel C. Moncher Professor of Physics and of Astronomy and an accomplished experimental physicist whose work explores the intersection of cosmology, particle physics, and gravitation, has been appointed dean of science by Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay.

Stubbs has been serving as the interim dean of science since June, when Jeremy Bloxham stepped down. He will begin his tenure immediately.

Stubbs, who joined the faculty in 2003 as a professor of physics and astronomy, served as chair of the Physics Department from 2007 to 2010. In 2009, he was named a Harvard College Professor, an honor bestowed upon faculty members in recognition of excellence in their roles as educators.

As a physicist, Stubbs was a member of one of the two teams that discovered dark energy by using supernovae to map out the history of cosmic expansion. He also founded the APOLLO collaboration, which is using lunar laser ranging and the Earth-Moon-Sun System to probe for novel gravitational effects that may result from physics beyond the standard model, and is heavily engaged in the construction of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, for which he was the inaugural project scientist.


Christopher Stubbs

GAZETTE: As you move into this new role, what are your priorities?

stubbs: We have had a clear set of priorities for this particular academic year, and at the top of the list is implementing general education courses that meet our goals and aspirations as we roll that program out. We’ve been working over the past few months with department chairs and colleagues to make sure we can provide a slate of interesting courses that meet the pedagogical objectives of the program.

Secondly, there are two intellectual initiatives that are in the early stages, one in quantitative biology and the other in quantum science and engineering. We are working in partnership with our colleagues at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) to make sure the faculty leaders in those initiatives have what they need to thrive, and to align our investments in terms of space and resources to make sure those programs succeed.

This year we have also continued the strategic planning process for space in Cambridge as SEAS makes the transition to have part of their activities happen in Allston. As part of that process, we want to consider what kind of intellectual adjacencies we want to achieve and how to best use our space.

The last major objective I want to mention is to strongly engage with the faculty in our division and try to strengthen the faculty voice in the decisions we make — about the allocation of faculty searches and space and investments. We want to make sure those discussions happen in a thoughtful way and that the faculty are fully engaged in those deliberations.

GAZETTE: Can you describe the steps you’re taking to engage with the faculty in more detail and the form that’s taken?

stubbs: Part of it is a charm offensive — I’ve tried to set up individual meetings with every single untenured faculty member in the division to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help them succeed at Harvard. I’ve also been going to departmental meetings to introduce myself to colleagues who may not know me as well as others, and I’ve been having many one-on-one conversations.

I think my job here is to cultivate a conversation among colleagues so we can move forward in interesting directions. That will allow us to capitalize on our strengths, take advantage of the opportunities we have, and find a way to include faculty in those decisions.

Part of that process is proactively sharing information. As an organization, we gather a great deal of information, but it’s quite scattered. We want to try to collate, summarize, and distribute information, so stakeholders have a lot more visibility into what’s going on in places that are beyond their immediate landscape or environment.

As an example, in the context of general education, annual reports are delivered to the departments that describe how many courses were offered and how many students were taught, but there isn’t reciprocal visibility about what was happening in other departments. Our office pulled together a tabulation and distributed it to all department chairs, so we could say, “Here’s what’s happening in statistics and mathematics and physics.” That helps people understand how things look from the perspective of our office, and to better understand why search allocations were made the way they were. That strengthens us as an organization. What we hope to do in the future is use that as an example of how our office can draw together and distribute information so we can all be better-informed.

That’s not to say we’re going to construct a figure of merit and rank things exclusively on quantitative information, but we have information that I would say is underutilized. Capturing that data and leveraging it helps us make better-informed choices … that seems a good direction for us to go.

“I think my job here is to cultivate a conversation among colleagues so we can move forward in interesting directions. … Part of that process is proactively sharing information. As an organization, we gather a great deal of information, but it’s quite scattered.”

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Christopher Stubbs

GAZETTE: Let’s talk about students. There has been a great deal written and said in recent years about the “pipeline problem” of getting and keeping students in STEM fields. Are there steps you want to take to address those challenges?

stubbs: Our broad objective is to make sure every undergraduate who comes to Harvard has a fulfilling and intellectually rewarding liberal arts experience. We do that in a variety of ways — by supporting the curricular goals of Harvard College through general education courses, first-year seminars, and courses students take regardless of their concentration.

I don’t know that the metric of how many concentrators we have in individual departments should be a big driver. Having said that, however, there are examples where there is a great deal of student demand. In statistics, for example, the number of concentrators has gone up by a factor of 10 in the last decade. I think that’s been driven, rightfully, by students’ perception that data-driven science and data science writ large are a growing part of the economy and the way we do business in this country and worldwide.

In terms of the pipeline issue — we certainly face a challenge of representation in many of the fields that are in this division. That’s true at Harvard, and nationwide. We embrace the idea of diverse excellence as an institutional goal … and I credit my predecessor, Jeremy Bloxham, and [former Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences] Mike Smith for having brought the division to 50 percent female junior faculty.  The turnover in faculty is slow — it’s measured in decades. But the faculty we’re bringing in at the junior level are much more representative than was the case 10 years ago.

I think it is sobering that, when you look at the national statistics of gender participation in STEM fields, the needle hasn’t budged much despite a great deal of effort and attempts to address the issue. Something isn’t working as much as we would like, and having us identify steps we can take to help address that problem is a real objective of ours.

GAZETTE: How important do you believe it is for undergraduates to have the hands-on experience of doing science in the lab?

stubbs: If you roll the clock forward 10 years and think about the huge amount of educational information that will be available online, the question becomes: Why would anyone come to Harvard for this four-year residential experience? I think we need to have a really good answer for that, and to me, part of the answer is that we offer learning experiences and opportunities you simply can’t get online.

That means participatory learning, which has long been a strength here, but has been somewhat of an undercurrent. Many students get involved in projects, whether as senior projects or doing research in faculty research groups. That’s wonderful, but it’s not something we strongly incentivize for faculty. When a faculty member brings undergrads into their research group, we don’t particularly recognize that as being teaching, when in fact it most certainly is — one could argue it’s some of the most important teaching we do.

I think we need to take a hard look at what our instructional paradigm is … especially in the context of thinking about how we allocate the space we have here on the north campus, and how to best configure those spaces for the instructional model of 20 years from now. We have a major organizational opportunity that is rare — we have a large amounts of space we can reallocate … and understanding what that learning model is going to be and configuring ourselves to get to that point is an important objective for us.

GAZETTE: As SEAS prepares for the move to Allston, how do you begin to consider how best to reuse that space? Where do those discussions stand?

stubbs: That’s actually fairly well underway. In partnership with our colleagues at SEAS, we have a group that meets regularly to look at that issue. There is an architectural study underway that will assess what the boundary conditions are in each of those buildings in terms of infrastructure for HVAC systems, electricity, floor load-bearing capacity, and more. That will help us understand what those spaces can be used for.

Some of these are legacy buildings that date back centuries, and we have work to do to become compliant with disability-access requirements. So there are some investments we have to make, but from a technical side we want to understand what the opportunities are in these buildings and what is the most cost-effective way to use that resource.

On a parallel path, we are looking at what we want to achieve intellectually. That process is less well-advanced, and how we engage the faculty in that conversation is something we’re actively talking about.

Realistically, I think sometime next year we’ll bring those two threads together and present to the FAS and the University a slate of options and opportunities, along with estimates of the resources required to do that, and then we’ll go through a process of deciding how to move forward.

GAZETTE: What does this new position mean for your research work?

stubbs: For many reasons, I think it’s essential that the dean of science remain a strong scientist during their time in office. I think it’s important to continue to function as a scientist in this capacity.

Of course, it does have an impact. My plan had been to take a sabbatical year and go to Chile to help commission a large telescope I’ve spent the last 10 years working to bring into operation. I don’t think I’m going to get a sabbatical year in Chile.

Part of the evaluation about whether or not to do this job is to assess the opportunity costs on the research side in one’s own sub-discipline. But if my professional goal is to try to make the world a better place and help Harvard flourish and continue to evolve and do better … that is a compelling opportunity to me.

GAZETTE: Your leadership style seems to dovetail well with that of Dean Gay. Are you looking forward to working more closely with her?

stubbs: The relationships between the divisional deans and the dean of FAS and the faculty are essential to us as an organization. I’ve been extremely encouraged in every interaction I’ve had with Dean Gay. She has been thoughtful and decisive, and one of the reasons I’m eager to do this job is I feel she and I have an alignment both of values and style, and I think we will make good partners in working together to craft a good future for the sciences at Harvard.

GAZETTE: Your appointment carries a five-year term. When you hand the reins over to your successor, what do you want the Division of Science to look like?

stubbs: I would like the faculty to feel empowered because we will have put in place a divisional governance structure that gives faculty a strong voice in how we choose to move forward together, and that that will make us a more agile intellectual organization.

Ideally, we can identify and move in directions of opportunity that enhance department-level strengths that we have in core disciplines as well as cross-cutting initiatives. We need to strike a thoughtful balance between those two ways of thinking about ourselves as an organization.

I want us to have a group of students who, when they come here, feel like they get the best education in the world, and that we continue to attract the best minds here to Cambridge and that we support them in flourishing and reaching their full potential.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.