From a young age, Joy K. Ward, the new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, knew science would be her calling. By the time she was 7 years old, Ward was already collecting interesting specimens from the forest near her home and looking at cells through her father’s microscope. As a senior in high school, real-life weather events hit close to home, influencing her decision to become a climate change scientist and plant biologist.
“During that year, we were confronted by a severe drought in many parts of the country,” Ward said. “I watched as my friends who lived on farms in central Pennsylvania struggled to keep their crops alive, and it had a major impact on me. I realized droughts could become more common on a global scale if climate change continued and that could jeopardize our ability to feed the planet.”
Ward is internationally recognized for her studies on how plants respond to changing atmospheric carbon dioxide over geologic and contemporary time. Her research has provided novel insights into how plants have responded to long-term environmental changes since the last glacial period, as well as an understanding of how plants will respond to environments of the future.
“I believe science is for everyone and the yearning to discover has always been central to the human condition,” she said. “I am very passionate about the support for science and its critical contributions to our society.”
Ward received her bachelor’s degree in biology from Penn State University and earned master’s and doctoral degrees at Duke University. She also held a postdoctoral position at the University of Utah. A biology professor at the University of Kansas for 17 years, Ward became a Kavli Fellow and received a National Science Foundation CAREER award. In 2010, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
While science is Ward’s discipline, she places the highest value on educational pursuits that bring together the arts, humanities and sciences.
“Leading a college of arts and sciences that integrates the best of the arts and humanities, and the social and natural sciences, is central to the future of our nation and to the world as a whole,” she said.
“Students in a learning environment that by its very nature is interdisciplinary are best equipped to think critically, ask the right questions, communicate effectively and become lifelong learners who are open to the viewpoints and perspectives of others. It is no wonder that many CEOs state that they prefer to hire students from colleges of arts and sciences such as ours.”
Ward was drawn to the college’s commitment to collaboration, both within the university and externally with community partners including alumni, industry and foundations.
“I recognize that the college is not an island unto itself, that we have an obligation to give back and to elevate others if we are to have served our true purpose as members of this university,” she said.
During her first trip to Cleveland, Ward struck up a conversation with someone working at the airport. The woman shared that due to family obligations when she was young, she was unable to complete her high school education until late in life. As a result, she now visits local schools to tell her story and emphasize the importance of education.
The woman’s story resonated with Ward.
“That was the moment I knew I was in the right place,” she said.
As she completes her first full week as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ward answered our five questions.
1. What are you most looking forward to about Cleveland?
I am excited about the Metroparks and all that they have to offer, and I consider them a local gem. I grew up not too far away in central Pennsylvania, and I am happy to be back in an area where I can hike in the woods from time to time. I also love all of the cultural opportunities here that enrich so many lives. I cannot wait to take advantage of them.
2. What’s the most difficult class you’ve ever taken and why?
A typing class in high school. I still cannot type correctly and I learned my way around this with my own personal method.
3. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you pick?
Costa Rica. I love the people, the large array of ecosystems, plants and animals and the peaceful pace of this region. I also love that there is a strong sense of connection with the environment and a focus on being together as friends and family with less focus on material things.
4. What famous person—alive or deceased—would you most like to meet?
Mother Teresa. She is one of the most amazing service leaders who ever lived. With very few resources, she created one of the most influential networks to serve the poorest of the poor, those with diseases and the forgotten of this world. She also did not judge others and respected the dignity of all. I strive to serve others with her as a model.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The people and how they work together for the good of the students. I have noticed that in every decision made, it is not about the administration and their needs, but about how to serve the greater good. I am so happy to be a member of this collaborative community. This is an amazing place, and I am honored to be here.