Professor Judith Burstyn Assumes Department Chair Role

Professor Judith Burstyn
Professor Judith Burstyn

Professor Judith Burstyn has been selected by her chemistry faculty colleagues to serve as the next department chair and began this role on July 1.

Following four years of service as chair, Professor Robert McMahon now returns to the faculty with a renewed focus on his research and teaching. He also will continue to serve as the lead for the Chemistry Building Project.

In preparation for this transition in department leadership, Burstyn took a moment to reflect on her experience at UW-Madison, the best qualities of the Department of Chemistry, and the opportunities that lie ahead during her term as chair. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Q: When did you join the Department of Chemistry?

JB: I came here in January 1990 and was actually hired the prior year. My son was born that August, so I postponed starting until January.

Q: What persuaded you to come to UW-Madison?

JB: There were two things: people and place. I’ll mention two people in particular.

The first person is Bob McMahon. We were graduate students together in the same class at UCLA. I managed to follow Bob around the country. Bob went to postdoc at MIT and I then went to postdoc at MIT. He then came here, to UW-Madison. I saw him at an ACS meeting and he told me that they were going to have a faculty opening in bioorganic chemistry. Despite the fact that I was not a bioorganic chemist, he encouraged me to apply because they also needed a bioinorganic chemist. This was the only bioorganic position I applied for. The organic chemists interviewed me first. They then recommended me to the inorganic chemists for a second interview.

The second person is [Professor Emeritus] Larry Dahl. After I visited and interviewed with the inorganic chemists, Larry was on the phone with me every single day. This really made a difference. He was very persuasive and convinced me that UW-Madison was a great place for me.

Already at that time, the UW had a reputation as a great place for biological research. In the end, Madison was the best place for me.

Q: How would you describe the Department of Chemistry today?

JB: Amazing. This department is a research powerhouse — one of the best research departments on campus. We have amazing people here. We’re also running one of the largest and most complex teaching operations on campus. The scale of our teaching operation has grown enormously in the time I’ve been here. Although we still have a long way to go, we’ve gotten better at hiring women and diverse faculty candidates. This is a broad challenge, and we need to continue to work on it.

Q: What is the role of the chair in the department today?

JB: The chair listens, convinces, and unifies members of the department. The chair sets a vision for the department. It’s not a ‘head’ role. There is no success except as you manage to bring the department — together, as a group — along with you. The goal is to articulate what to do and where to go and then go there together in an efficient way.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as chair?

JB: I hope to get the department to think about our larger communal vision. I want to work to reaffirm our shared mission and try to articulate how every role in the department is connected to that mission.

Beyond that, there are two places I would like to focus: The first is our operational structure. Are we structured in a way to most efficiently carry out our mission?

The second is climate. As a department, we want to be greater than the sum of our parts. Our parts are our people. Climate has a great impact in this area. If everyone sees how their small piece is connected to the larger mission, then we can be greater than the sum of our parts.

Q: What special skill do you hope to bring to this role?

JB: I hope that my understanding of and connections with the larger university and the administration will be to our benefit.

Q: What advice have you received from previous department chairs?

JB: I have deliberately sought out and — thankfully — been offered advice from former chairs. Jim Weisshaar, Bob Hamers, and Bob McMahon have been exceptionally helpful. The key piece of advice I have received is that you can only take on so much during your term as chair.