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Susan Foster, executive director of the MCB Department, received a 2012 Harvard Hero award after being enthusiastically nominated by both faculty and staff. The Hero award is a staff recognition program that celebrates the significant contributions of staff members from across the University and provides an opportunity for exceptional staff members to be recognized by Harvard President Drew Faust. Of the 12,000 Harvard staff members, nine Harvard Heroes were selected from the FAS community, according to Chris Ciotti, Associate Dean for Human Resources, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Foster is the only member of the Life Sciences Division to be honored with this important award.

When Professor John Dowling saw the nomination request for the Harvard Hero award, Foster immediately came to mind. He contacted the MCB faculty, and seven others joined in the nomination. Explains Professor Alexander Schier, “Susan has helped make MCB not only more efficient and effective but also more pleasant and nurturing. She has a perfect combination of charm and focus to set high standards, inspire her colleagues, and get things done.”

Nancy Hegarty, MCB’s Assistant Director of Sponsored Research, also immediately thought of Foster and was one of the staff members who nominated Foster. “How often do you see a pat on the back going up, when you tell your supervisor she is doing a fantastic job?”

Catherine Dulac, the chair of the department, says that Fosters’s work literally transformed MCB in few years. “She helped reorganize its finances, its administrative organization and its graduate program. She established remarkably efficient and productive relationship between the various groups forming our community, in particular staff, faculty and postdocs. Everyone in MCB, and I, as chair more than anyone, has enormously benefited from her ideas and talent. It has been very enjoyable, and immensely rewarding to work with her, and I certainly can’t think of a more deserving ‘hero!’”

Foster says she would much rather be handing out honors than receiving them, and she is particularly humbled that both faculty and staff should nominate her. “To me, it means that my contributions have made a difference to people who I value very highly. Perhaps in my way I have helped in someone’s own scientific discovery or achievement, and that is an incredible personal award.”

Growing Up In the Shadow of Harvard

Among Susan Foster’s rare gifts, says Professor Matthew Meselson, “is knowing what a university should be.” But just how did a young girl from challenging life circumstances who never went to college acquire such a gift?

Foster was born in Boston and moved to the South Boston projects—“one of the worst neighborhoods in the United States at the time“—when she was three. After her parents divorced, her mother moved with Susan and her four brothers to the grandparents’ house in Somerville. “We lived in the shadow of Harvard, and my mother always dreamed we would go there.” But her mother, who worked at the Yard of Ale, an English-style tavern in “the Square”, died when Foster was 15 and her grandparents died a few years later. Foster became “Mom” for her two younger brothers: cleaning, cooking, shopping for food and school clothes, reviewing homework and report cards, etc. “We had to be adults at a very early age.” She took a job at a “horrible” (say no more) accounting firm in Boston, where she nevertheless acquired a foundation in finance that she uses to this day.

Foster figured that if she could not go to college, she could work at one. So at age 19, she was thrilled to land a job in the Tufts University political science department, earning $135 a week and sitting at a desk in the hallway at the top of a grungy flight of stairs. “I really loved it!” After a year, a faculty member took Foster with him to start a new venture, the Tuft’s School of Nutrition. Over the next 15 years, she grew from position to position as the program also grew, eventually becoming Assistant Dean for Student Services. “I couldn’t have landed in a better place! The dean trusted that I could learn to do anything”—a confidence and support that Foster now shows her own staff. She took courses in history and other areas of interest, while raising her children.

Going to the Big Guns

When Foster’s dean at Tufts retired, he encouraged her to “go for the big guns” and look for positions at MIT and Harvard. She first moved to MIT’s economics department, where a graduate student administrator had left abruptly in the heat of the fall admission and recruitment period. “That was right up my alley,” says Foster, who enjoys making sense out of chaos. In two years, she entered Harvard through the School of Public Health’s epidemiology department. After five years, seeking to avoid the traffic jams around the Longwood campus for Red Sox games, she moved to the Cambridge campus in 2000, to the Visual and Environmental Studies Department. In two years she shifted to MCB as Associate Director, where her talents were cherished. But two years later she was pulled into yet another new venture, the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS).

“I was sitting there enjoying myself at IQSS when I got invited to an MCB retirement party,” she continues. “Rich Losick came up and said I really needed to come back to MCB. Catherine Dulac was the new chair and she would be dynamic. I should at least have lunch with her. So I did, and Catherine told me how she wanted to change the department and create a better sense of community. I was hooked.”

“Susan Foster had been in MCB for few years while I was a junior faculty,” Dulac says, “and I had a vivid recollection of her as an amazing problem solver, but also a very energetic and warm person. When I became chair and was starting to fully realize all the complex organizational problems MCB was encountering, Susan seemed to be an obvious choice as a new head administrator. There was no doubt in my mind that the two of us could work well together, and that her skills would be an extraordinary asset for the department.”

Welcome Back, Susan

Within a month of Foster’s return to the MCB department in 2007 as executive director, people sensed a change, recalls Professor Dowling. “Before we would hear, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ Now suddenly we heard, ‘Let’s see how we can do these things.’ She thinks about the department and the people in it, and wants what is best for it.”

From the start, Foster worked closely with the chair, Dulac, and also with all levels of the department. But she was sorely tested shortly after her return when eleven MCB scientists had less than a year to move their labs from the Fairchild building. “It’s very stressful for bench scientists to move their wet labs,” Foster recalls. “They worried desperately about how it might disrupt their research. Catherine and I spent many hours discussing how we could best facilitate the change and reassure the faculty that it would all work out for the best, ” Foster says. “We are a more tightly knit community today as a result. For me, it was a great experience because I felt like I really helped accomplish something.”

The move also affected the core administration, which was relocated from Fairchild and BioLabs to the Northwest Building. Foster also saw that disruption as an opportunity to bring the administration together both figuratively and physically. “We were fractured and lacked cohesiveness, and the various parts of the team didn’t understand what the others were doing,” says Foster. “I wanted to make us a comprehensive group and enable people to learn from each other”—the way the diverse faculty at MCB were doing. In the process, the faculty noticed that things ran much more smoothly, and the department gained recognition as a model for its administration.

Accomplishing all that took discipline, strong leadership and fairness, says Jack Conlin, a Lab Services/AV Technician who was among those who nominated her for the Harvard Heroes Award. “Some of the workers would call her ‘that tough Somerville chick.’ When I told Susan that, she just laughed.”

Kidding aside, Foster’s vision is a department where faculty and staff all respect one another and appreciate the various expert roles that each contributes to the whole. From the administrative side, she wants the staff to understand how the faculty work and how to relate to them. At one senior staff meeting, for example, she explained the tenure process, and what junior faculty go through to achieve tenure, how long it takes, and what scrutiny they are under. “They were shocked. They had no idea how complicated and stressful it is. So now our staff understands the faculty better, and the faculty really appreciates how well the staff work for them. It’s academic Zen.”

Read more in the HARVARD gazette

[June 6, 2012]