Meet Melina Hale, PhD’98, the College’s new dean.
Melina Hale, PhD’98, the William Rainey Harper Professor in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, became dean of the College on July 1. Hale, who previously served as a vice provost of the University, succeeds John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of History. The Core spoke with Hale in late June, as she was preparing to step into her new position.
What was your first impression of UChicago when you came here as a graduate student?
How passionate everyone was about their research—that was both exciting and intimidating. And I loved how we were all appreciated for being our own quirky selves.
What were the first classes you taught?
I had the good fortune of being a teaching assistant for Lorna Straus [LAB’49, X’53, SM’60, PhD’62, now professor emerita of organismal biology and anatomy] and Jim Hopson [PhD’65, now professor emeritus of organismal biology and anatomy], both such great role models.
At the time, Lorna was the only woman faculty member in my department. She asked me to teach Multicellular Organisms with her but ended up leading a trip to Antarctica during the quarter, leaving me with the class for a while. Being thrown in the deep end was scary, but that happens over and over again in academia. I had to learn quickly and develop my own teaching style and approach. The students were so great and taught me a lot about how to teach that year. [Hale received the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 1994.]
In Jim’s course, Chordate Biology, my favorite memory is from when we were dissecting sharks. The night before an exam a student wrote a long—very long, and pretty good—“Ode to the Shark” on the chalkboard in the dissection room. Humanities in the anatomy lab is so UChicago. And I was impressed that the student had time for poetry before an exam.
Will you teach as dean?
I hope so. I want to teach something interdisciplinary. My research is on the neurobiology and biomechanics of movement. I was thinking about something bridging science and art, such as dance or animation of movement. Or perhaps an interdisciplinary course related to scientific communications or a Big Problems course. I’d love to coteach with a colleague. I always learn so much when coteaching.
How would you describe your teaching style?
I love engaging with students in the classroom. But I will say, some of my favorite teaching moments are from my lab, working with undergrads on research projects. That’s been a very meaningful part of my career.
Working in research labs can be such a wonderful opportunity for the students, because they can be involved in a project from an early stage—developing experiments—through doing the experiments, analyzing them, and, in some cases, writing them up and having them published. Students learn how to think like a scientist, and of course they learn the subject matter deeply.
An important part of the experience is when things don’t go as planned. Maybe the results aren’t as straightforward as hypothesized or the experimental design or methods don’t work as planned. I’m excited that some of the Core Bio sections now incorporate projects with new research.
Do you have a favorite UChicago tradition?
Scav is so great. I am proud to be friends with a Scav cofounder, Diane Kelly [AB’90]. I am curious about Kuvia. We’ll see this winter …
I’ve really enjoyed going to College games and cheering on the Maroons. When my kids were little, they were so in awe of the players—for them it was better than the Bears or Bulls. Sometimes players would even take a picture with them or give them a high five. Family Weekend and Alumni Weekend are also really fun—I’ve met such interesting fellow alums.
How are you preparing for your new job?
There is a lot to do to prepare! The staff in the College are amazing, and I’ve loved learning about the work of the different offices. One little thing I did was to borrow my son’s Hum books to have as my summer reading. I’ve started out with St. Augustine’s Confessions. Wish me luck, because this summer has been pretty busy learning the ropes of the deanship.
You’ve mentioned a couple different Core sequences—a fan?
Absolutely. The Core is foundational to the UChicago experience. We often talk about students not learning “what to think” but “how to think,” and that happens in the Core. The depth of exposure to ideas across disciplines is important no matter what career path someone ends up taking. I’ve seen that directly with our students going into biosciences.
It is also important to study the humanities and other Core subjects to foster our own humanity. To equip ourselves to live in a community with other human beings, to be citizens.
Besides doing Hum Core readings, do you have any hobbies?
I love bouldering. I like that it combines movement with problem solving. I am always terrified on high walls at the bouldering gym but then can’t wait to climb again.
Are there any lessons from bouldering that might come in useful as dean?
So many. There are different ways to complete a “problem,” or climb a route. Different climbers have different strengths and are successful with different approaches. And rather than just attempting a climb over and over, spending time to think about it—and talk through it with others—is often more effective.