Jacquelyn S. Fetrow achieved at least one of her childhood dreams: to become a scientist. As for the other, well, there's still time for her to become an astronaut.
The new president of Albright College has had an impressive career as a distinguished academic, entrepreneur and university administrator.
Fetrow has published more than 80 scientific articles and she holds five U.S. patents. She co-invented the technology that she used to help found GeneFormatics, a biotech software company during the heady days of human genome sequencing.
Fetrow has now come full circle, returning to the small, liberal arts college in north Reading where she graduated summa cum laude in 1982 with a degree in biochemistry.
Founded in 1856, Albright has about 1,800 full-time undergraduate students and about 800 adult and graduate students.
Fetrow earned a doctorate in biological chemistry from Penn State College of Medicine and pursued post-doctoral work at two universities before getting a tenured faculty position at the State University of New York at Albany. She left to work at Scripps Research Institute before returning to academia, where she was a dean at Wake Forest University for 11 years and provost at the University of Richmond.
Committed to a liberal arts education, Fetrow looks to provide the leadership, vision and guidance to help the college as it enhances its strong science and arts programs and begins to define a new strategic path.
Warm, thoughtful and engaging, Fetrow sat down with Lehigh Valley Business for a wide-ranging conversation, talking about Albright’s future, women in science – particularly Rosalind Franklin (“She should have shared the Nobel Prize”) – and her passion for the study of protein structures (“It’s very cool”).
Lehigh Valley Business: Albright College is entering a new phase in its history, not only with your appointment as president, but it appears poised for growth and change. What are some of Albright’s plans for the campus, its physical plant and its academic programs and enrollment? I understand there’s a master plan for growth.
Jacquelyn S. Fetrow: We are moving boldly into the future. At this particular moment in time, we are moving into a new phase. We are working to enhance our programs that are really poised to be best-in-class.
We’ve always been very strong in the sciences. Our arts programs are nationally recognized, particularly our theater program. Our fashion merchandising and design program has also received national recognition in the last three years.
So thinking about where Albright is poised to be best-in-class, where we’re poised for distinction, there will probably be some growth, some enhancement. We’re just starting that planning process.
LVB: How will the new $20 million National Velodrome at Albright College affect the college? It will be only the second indoor cycling track in the country. What programmatic changes will there be? How will it raise Albright’s national, and perhaps international, profile?
Fetrow: We are very excited by the velodrome and very happy that Lex [McMillan III], my predecessor, was engaged and reached out to the velodrome folks. The name is the National Velodrome at Albright College. So it’s a co-branding thing with the World Cycling League, WCL. It gives us the opportunity to develop cycling.
We are very strong in athletics; a third of our students are student athletes. Participating in athletics in college is a valuable thing for many, many students. It provides opportunities for leadership and self-discipline.
Having the velodrome here would allow us to offer cycling as a competitive sport. That opens up opportunities for new students to think about Albright College, as we would offer them distinctive opportunities to do not only outdoor cycling, but indoor cycling, club sports, as well as what cycling calls a varsity sport.
There’s going to be opportunity for programmatic initiatives. We have discussed offering programs at our School of Professional Studies where students could get internships at the velodrome or there could be opportunities in sports management or marketing.
It offers wonderful space. We will have the opportunity to use that space for athletics, intramurals and events at significantly reduced cost through this partnership.
The opportunity for the WCL, an international organization that promotes cycling, and having their national headquarters on campus brings name recognition for Albright College and for the city of Reading. That will be distinctive and an opportunity nationally and internationally.
LVB: All of these changes (and programmatic changes) will cost money. As dean of Wake Forest College, the liberal arts and sciences school at Wake Forest University, you led its $350 million fundraising campaign, part of the university’s $600 million campaign at the time. At GeneFormatics, the biotech company you co-founded, you raised more than $50 million, so it’s something you have experience with. Have you been tasked with spearheading Albright’s development campaign? Is there a goal?
Fetrow: I will partner with the vice president of advancement, who will spearhead the next capital campaign that will be developed based on our strategic plan, which we are in the very early stages of developing.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean we’re paused. We have transition fundraising priorities that are geared to supporting some of our best programs.
The previous campaign, That Their Light Might Shine, was rightly and appropriately focused on facilities and buildings. We’re finishing out a few of those. What we’re going to be focusing on now is our academic programs, where are we poised to be best-in-class and moving those to the next level.
LVB: As someone with a deep background in the sciences who is now president of a small, liberal arts college, how important are the liberal arts? How relevant is it for a student to major in subjects such as English or art history when employers are looking for students with degrees in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]? What do you say to the student who wants to major in English or folklore?
Fetrow: That they should. And here’s why. Let me tell you a story first.
For many years, I have run research laboratories at various institutions, and a lot of undergraduates have done work with me. My favorite students have always been those students who not only majored in something in the sciences but either minored or double-majored in something in the arts or the humanities.
Those students have a depth and breadth of thinking, a creativity that students that were solely focused on the sciences have less often. [I saw] how they think out of the box, the questions they ask, their ability to ask the next question rather than just kind of follow bread crumbs.
If you look at the employer surveys, what employers are most looking for are the skills that students learn in the liberal arts: thinking critically about a problem, the ability to solve unscripted problems, the ability to communicate verbally and in writing, the ability to understand difference, to think and understand across cultures, the ability to consider an ethically ambiguous situation. These are skills that we teach in the liberal arts in any major.
So in art history, those students learn better than anybody how to take the visual and compare it. How to think about that art in a time and place and culture and what that means for the art itself. Those skills are transferable in a global world to any number of actual jobs.
That said, students need the skills to get the first job, right? So, at Albright College, we’re actually preparing students for two things: for getting the first job and at the same time they’re learning the skills that will help them find the next job and the next job and the next job. We’re preparing them for jobs that haven’t been invented yet. …
Here’s a statistic that might surprise you. When you and I graduated from college, the social scientists of the world had this projection of the number of jobs we would hold in our lifetime. Guess.
Fetrow: Seven. And I’m actually in my seventh job right now. So I’m right on target. Social scientists are making similar predictions, as they have for every generation of students. How many jobs do they estimate students will have today? 10? 15? What would you guess?
LVB: Ten or 15.
Fetrow: Between 22 and 27 jobs. It’s a lot of jobs.
LVB: We were following a career track. Are they jobs?
Fetrow: It remains to be seen how that all plays out because these are all projections for the future, just like they made projections in 1982 or 1983. Because jobs are evolving so quickly, students like to be very engaged in what they do, and if they’re not engaged, they don’t hesitate to look to the next thing.
So we’re preparing them for jobs that don’t even exist. If we train them very narrowly in the professions, we’re doing them a disservice. So it’s important that we provide them the skills to get their first job as well as to the skills that they’ll need to navigate across a lifetime of jobs.
LVB: Albright has traditionally been strong in the sciences and in pre-med. Are there plans to reinvigorate or change the college’s science programs?
Fetrow: I would say the answer to that question is we’re still strong in the sciences. We still have a number of students who get accepted to early decision to places like [Penn State] Hershey Medical School, so it is a strength.
That said, I think it is probably one of the places where we’re going to be investing in some of our programs. The sciences as well as the arts are two of the places where I think it’s important to support strength where strength exists.
LVB: Are you going to have a hand in any of that, in the sciences?
Fetrow: I would love to, but I think I’ll be busy doing everything else. I would love to teach a course at some point.
My favorite course recently that I taught was a first-year seminar called, “Well-behaved Women Rarely Make Scientific History.” It’s about the history of gender and science and is a really fun course to teach.
Students learn writing, they learn oral speaking, they learn to think critically about historical data and context of time.
LVB: It would appear that your experience and connections in the scientific and biotech fields would be something the college could leverage to help its students. Any plans to do that?
Fetrow: I think the answer to the question is yes. Do I know what form those will take? Not yet. Stay tuned.
LVB: Tuition and expenses at Albright are about $55,060 a year. How does the rising cost of tuition affect Albright College? Is the high cost a barrier to attracting high-quality students who come from middle class or working class families?
Fetrow: You’re asking a question that all of higher education is facing right now. I think the answer to that question is increasingly becoming yes, for many schools. For a very large number of years, cost of school was equivalent to the quality of the school.
At the same time costs have risen, many family incomes have not totally kept pace or are just barely keeping up with inflation. Costs have moved beyond what people equate with quality. With the exception of the most highly selective schools, the top 25 nationally ranked schools, the vast majority of schools in higher education we’ve reached an edge where the data tell us that cost has become a barrier.
What do we do about that? We’re thinking hard about that problem.
LVB: In your inaugural address in October you talked about truth and justice, the words on Albright’s college seal, as being especially important today.
You said, “These words affirm that the search for knowledge should not be separated from the search for wise and just solutions in human affairs in the natural world.” Can you say more about that?
Fetrow: Truth and justice are two words that come together. When you think about truth, that’s one of the things we do in higher ed. It’s the search for knowledge. It’s the scholarly and creative work to understand, to understand science, to understand literature, create art. It’s the attempt to understand the world and our own humanity. That’s truth.
When you put truth together with justice, the search for knowledge becomes not just about finding the facts or creating understanding, it’s that next step to truly understanding what justice means in light of those facts.
And so when you put truth and justice together you have this idea that yes, we are an educational institution, search for knowledge is what we do, and at the same time we also use the knowledge to search for wise and just solutions in our world. I think that’s what higher education institutions should do.
LVB: Who are some of your female science heroes?
Fetrow: Rosalind Franklin. She should have shared the Nobel Prize. Watson and Crick … won the Nobel Prize. But of course the Nobel committee said, “She’s dead, we can’t award it to her after the fact.” …
I think Barbara McClintock was amazing. Corn genetics maize.
LVB: What is your area of expertise?
Fetrow: I do computational work to understand and model how protein structure is related to protein function. We attempt to build computer models that will explain how proteins work.
Most everything in your body works because a protein folds into a really beautiful three-dimensional shape and does something. So the protein that looks like this, that has this three-dimensional shape, will be something that causes your brain to function. Another protein that folds a different way will be something that digests sugar.
What is it about that biochemical and physical chemical structure of the protein that causes one of them to do this function and another one of them to do another function and the tens of thousands of other functions of proteins in your body?
It’s very cool. It’s very cool.
JACQUELYN S. FETROW
Organization: Albright College, Reading.
Hometown: Grew up in Camp Hill; lives in Reading.
Family tree: Spouse, Brian.
When you brag about Berks County to people from out of state, you say: Beautiful countryside with trees, hills, mountains, farmland, wonderful restaurants, and the interesting and diverse post-industrial city of Reading, a place that provides deep insight into the values on which our country was built.
Fantasy dinner guests: Donald Hollowell, Vernon Jordan and Martin Luther King Jr.
Guilty pleasure: Coffee milkshakes.
Dream vacation: Full-time driving around this beautiful country in a travel-trailer with my life partner, Brian, and my dogs.
When you were a child, you wanted to be ... Either an astronaut or a scientist, depending on the day.
Something your co-workers don’t know about you: During my time as a post-doctoral fellow and assistant professor, I played volleyball competitively.
What inspires you the most and why? Watching and working with students, who work hard to understand something and then do, who struggle to overcome something, and then do. The young people in this country are amazing—and they have a lot to remind and teach us older folks.
What makes a great day for you? Doing good work and having fun, like we do at Albright College