Leadership in a COVID-19 world

Susan R. Wente serves dual roles as biomedical scientist and interim chancellor and provost

This story will run in full in the inaugural, Summer 2020 issue of Vestigo, the magazine from the School of Medicine Basic Sciences.

Interim Chancellor and Provost Susan R. Wente (Vanderbilt University)
Interim Chancellor and Provost Susan R. Wente (Vanderbilt University)

When the first reports of an unusual new respiratory disease made news in January, Susan Wente leaned on her years of experience as a biomedical scientist and academic leader. She gathered data, listened to diverse experts and made sure the right teams were in place.

“Vanderbilt has a very robust emergency response management plan that covers everything from tornadoes to active shooters to floods to pandemics,” says Wente, interim chancellor and provost. “As we watched the situation in China evolve, our team was meeting to update our pandemic matrix plans in response to what we were learning about COVID-19.”

Wente describes a near-constant series of meetings, conference calls, and conversations that became particularly intense in early March when the first patients with COVID-19 were reported in Tennessee.

“There were so many unknowns about how the disease was spreading,” she says. “Our priority was always the safety and well-being of Vanderbilt students, staff, and faculty. We were taking into account the best information we had at the time and moving as quickly as we could to protect everyone as best as possible.”

Being a biomedical scientist has served Wente well as she’s led the university through “a rapid succession of significant decisions,” she says.

“In both science and in leadership, you need to gather as much data as you can and consider all the options, approaches, and potential consequences. And you also have to feel comfortable making the call, even when you may not have all the data at hand.

“Scientists do that every single day—they draw the best conclusions, make the best hypotheses, and design the next experiments based on the data they have at the time.”

Trust, transparency, teamwork

The March 9 decision to suspend in-person classes at Vanderbilt and move to online instruction—what many people think of as the “big decision”—Wente says, was part of the plan. “We knew we would take that step when we had a triggering event or set of events.”

Several students who had returned to campus following spring break reported being exposed to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 that day. Although no one on campus was known to have tested positive for the disease, university leaders “felt the threat was high that the coronavirus could potentially spread to members of our community,” Wente says.

The suspension of in-person classes was one of the first decisions of its type in the region, and it proved to be prescient for the Nashville stay-at-home orders to come.

In the days following March 9, online learning was extended from weeks to the rest of the semester, students were instructed to move off campus, all athletics events were suspended, and staff and faculty members were directed to work remotely.

Wente and the leadership team swiftly put additional working groups into place to help guide the university through the pandemic crisis. They made the painful yet necessary decision to postpone in-person Commencement for the Class of 2020 until May 2021 and have launched a comprehensive, strategic Return to Campus plan. Extensive communications and answers to frequently asked questions about all aspects of the university’s response populate a dedicated website.

Wente, who has served as a Vanderbilt leader for 18 years, believes that her efforts to build a culture of trust, teamwork, and collaboration helped prepare the university for this time of crisis.

“This pandemic has forced a change in the way we work and live. This is now a COVID-19 world,” Wente says. “As we plan for the future, our various working groups and task forces and committees are all looking to each other for guidance and strength.

“I believe this kind of camaraderie, paired with my guiding principles of trust, transparency, and teamwork, not only prepared me but prepared all of us as a ‘One Vanderbilt’ community. We are doing what Vanderbilt does best—collaborating, finding solutions, and moving forward, together.”

A scientist from America’s heartland

The eldest of three children, Wente was raised in the small town of Emmetsburg, Iowa. Her mother, a registered nurse, and her father, an educator, instilled in their children a love of education and a strong work ethic.

Wente excelled in math and science and was one of her high school class’s valedictorians. Her talent in forensics and drama earned her a scholarship to the University of Iowa, where she enrolled in the fall of 1980 as a pre-dental hygiene major, a practical choice that she knew would lead to a steady job.

The major, however, required that she take freshman English, a course she had tested out of and was not interested in “re-taking.” On reviewing her high school transcript and records, the pre-dental hygiene adviser suggested she change to “open major”—a designation that would allow her to choose a major later—and take courses recommended for pre-med and science majors.

It was a moment she now thinks of as one of the “zig-zags” in her career, a time when she stayed open to an unexpected opportunity. Mentors, she says, and supportive friends and family have made it possible for her to take risks and embrace changes to her path.

“That undergraduate adviser turned my life upside down by telling me to go open major, and now I’m so thankful for that guidance,” Wente says.

At the University of Iowa, Wente found a scientific home in the Department of Biochemistry, where she discovered the “thrill and rigor of basic biomedical research.”

She enjoyed mentoring others, even during her time as an undergraduate—an early sign that she might enjoy leadership roles.

“Mentoring others was one of the things that drew me to being on the faculty doing research, that opportunity to teach others how to make discoveries,” she says.

Wente pursued graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied catalytic and regulatory properties of a protein enzyme—and met her future husband, Chris Hardy. Together, they moved to New York, and Wente trained as a postdoctoral fellow first at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and then at Rockefeller University.

She launched her independent research career at Washington University in St. Louis, studying the nuclear pore complex, channel-like portals made up of hundreds of proteins that regulate the movement of cargoes into and out of the cell nucleus.

Vanderbilt comes calling

Wente was just eight years into her faculty position when she got an unexpected call from a former colleague. Dr. Arnold Strauss, who had worked with Wente on thesis committees, had moved to Vanderbilt and was leading the search for a chairperson for the Department of Cell Biology (now Cell and Developmental Biology). He wanted her to apply for the position.

The timing didn’t seem right. Her research was continuing to accelerate with recent high-profile papers in Nature and Science. Wente and Hardy, who was also on the faculty, and their two young daughters had just moved into a new house.

“We planned to stay put for a while. I wasn’t looking to become a department chair at that point in my career,” Wente says. But Strauss persuaded her to visit and give a seminar.

“I had never been to Vanderbilt before, so I thought, why not.”

By the end of the visit, she was intrigued. Vanderbilt had committed funding to trans-institutional centers and institutes that crossed traditional boundaries between departments, schools, and colleges, as well as shared research core facilities that were open to all investigators. The university was investing in a truly interdisciplinary graduate program in the biomedical sciences.

“These kinds of things weren’t happening at every university,” Wente says. “I became so impressed and excited by Vanderbilt. It seemed like a place where if you had a good idea, the leadership said, let’s try it.”

She also felt excited about the idea of extending her passion for mentoring. She had been heavily involved in the graduate programs at Washington University and had served as the co-director of the M.D.-Ph.D. joint degree program. As a department chair, she knew she would be involved in recruiting and mentoring junior faculty, and in building a department to promote the success of faculty and trainees at all levels.

She joined the Vanderbilt faculty as chair of Cell and Developmental Biology in 2002 and quickly distinguished herself as a leader. She prioritized supporting a diverse faculty, and together with her colleagues, she grew the department dramatically and tripled the number of women on the faculty.

In 2009, she became the associate vice chancellor for research and senior associate dean for biomedical sciences, a position that combined research and graduate education under one leader for the first time. In this role, she was responsible for providing infrastructure and designing strategic planning efforts for basic biomedical science research, as well as leading trans-institutional graduate programs and overseeing the training of more than 1,000 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Magnified mentoring impact

In May 2013, she got another out-of-the-blue phone call—this time from then-Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos requesting that she meet with him. He wanted her to co-chair the strategic planning process for the university, and he wanted the planning to be faculty driven and include all 10 schools and colleges from its inception.

With co-chair John Geer, now Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science, Wente led a planning process that gathered feedback from more than 1,500 faculty members.

“During that process, I learned so much about all the different strengths across campus. I fell in love with all 10 schools and colleges, and I got so excited about the strategic plan,” Wente says.

When the provost position became available late in the strategic planning process, she applied.

“I was so grateful that Chancellor Zeppos and the search committee selected me,” she says. “It’s unusual for someone to come from medical center leadership to the provost position.”

Wente has served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs since 2014. She is Vanderbilt’s first female provost and has led implementation of the Academic Strategic Plan, with its key pillars of cross-disciplinary research, an immersive undergraduate residential experience, innovative educational technology, and health care solutions.

For the past year, she has also served as interim chancellor—the first woman to lead the university.

As provost, Wente spearheaded inclusive faculty hiring efforts and launched the Women’s Advancement and Equity, or WAVE, councils with the goal of ensuring that all women are supported and positioned for success. After establishing Vanderbilt’s first Office of Inclusive Excellence in 2017, she created the Interim Chancellor’s Diversity Council this past year to advise on equity and inclusion across all areas of the university.

“Being a woman in two male-dominated fields, university leadership and the sciences, has taught me the importance of having many different voices and perspectives at the table when decisions are made,” Wente says.

A driver at each of her leadership transitions has been the opportunity to have a “magnified mentoring impact,” she says, from graduate students to faculty members to department chairs to deans. “It’s been an expanding purview of mentoring that still all goes back to faculty, staff, and students, and how I can best help others be successful.”

She has been able to seize opportunities for new roles because of the strong support of family and friends, she says.

“I feel so fortunate to have such a close family that I knew would support me, no matter what decision I made or what opportunity I was given or not given. My husband and daughters have been my greatest cheerleaders and are a driving force and inspiration in everything I do.”

Question, collaborate, discover and solve

In her office in Vanderbilt’s Kirkland Hall, Wente keeps a book that she purchased during her postdoctoral days. It is D. W. Fawcett’s The Cell, filled with electron micrographs and drawings of cellular structures. Post-it notes peek out from some of the pages, and Wente turns to one of them, a smile lighting up her face.

“These are pictures of nuclear pore complexes and nuclear envelopes,” she says, pointing to dark spots in the grainy black-and-white photos. “I’ve spent my career working on understanding that black box. How does it control the movement of proteins and RNA in and out of the nucleus?”

Wente has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1994 to study “that black box.” In 2010, she received a coveted Method to Extend Research In Time or MERIT award, given to “investigators with stellar records of research accomplishment,” according to the NIH.

Her scientific training permeates her approach as a leader.

“People often say that biomedical graduate programs don’t prepare you for all the things you are going to need to do across your career span,” she says. “But I think that being a biomedical scientist and running a research lab prepared me for a ton of what I deal with on a leadership level.”

Scientists must do their homework to know all the background on a given topic, be data-driven in making decisions about next experiments, work as part of teams, and have an optimistic outlook, she says.

“As a scientist, you have to be optimistic and learn to regroup when something doesn’t turn out the way you expected—to tweak a variable or change a reagent and try the experiment again.”

It’s safe to say that Wente’s year as interim chancellor didn’t turn out the way she expected. But in this COVID-19 world, she continues to question, to listen, to gather data, and to design new “experiments” to move the university forward.

She is inspired by the resilience and innovation of Vanderbilt staff, faculty, students, and alumni.

“We’re a community that continues to question, collaborate, discover, and solve,” she says. “We’re resilient and caring, and I’ve seen those qualities exemplified during our response to COVID-19. What we’re doing now will set the stage for us to ensure that generations to come can have a Vanderbilt education and do research in the Vanderbilt way.”

After wearing multiple hats this year, Wente will continue in her role as provost with a new perspective and fresh ideas to further advance the ‘One Vanderbilt’ culture of collaboration, creativity, and civility. She is looking forward to working with Incoming Chancellor Daniel Diermeier, who has served as a provost and has a keen understanding of the significance of the role.

“I’m also eager to find more opportunities to help others succeed,” she says. “With so much uncertainty in the world at this moment, these personal connections feel especially important.”