Stephen White, D.Phil, doesn’t seem like your typical graduate school dean. He can crack up an auditorium full of scientists. He knows a lot of bad John Wayne jokes, told in a deadpan English accent. He adores structural biology.
And he has done something few deans can claim: built a brand-new graduate school from scratch.
As the St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences welcomes its second-ever incoming class, we talk to him in a more serious moment about why St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital decided to launch a graduate school, what life is like for the adventurous students who joined the new program, and how St. Jude is supporting their success.
Why start a new graduate school?
SW: Graduate students make particularly unique contributions to research – they are fearless and willing to take on challenging projects, and bring youthful energy to the research enterprise.
In essence, education and training has always been at the heart of the St. Jude mission. Postdoctoral fellows, clinical fellows and students who come to St. Jude from affiliated universities have always made crucial contributions to our work each and every day. To now be able to formally train cohorts of St. Jude graduate students and have the freedom to fashion their development is something that I and our graduate faculty are very excited about.
How did the students feel about joining a new program?
SW: Everyone at St. Jude should appreciate that when the school first opened its doors last year, the students’ decision to join our brand new program was unbelievably brave and daring. They are all gifted and accomplished, and could have joined any of the outstanding graduate schools throughout the US. However, we are precisely seeking these types of brave and daring students and have continued to do so. The students in our second incoming class are just as impressive.
We are keenly aware of the trust that the students have placed in our graduate faculty and staff. And we are all part of this journey - their suggestions and ideas have represented invaluable feedback to us as the school continues to grow. I am happy to say that our inaugural class reports that they had an incredible first year, and the translational and clinical aspects of the program have given them a truly unique perspective on doing science.
I have no doubt whatsoever that in 20 years’ time they will all be pursuing successful independent careers and will be proud to say that they were the first to receive their PhD degree from such an eminent, successful and internationally recognized graduate program.
How is the school connected to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital?
SW: The graduate faculty is drawn from the faculty at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the Graduate School is physically situated on the St. Jude campus. Although the Graduate School is its own distinct entity, Dr. Downing, the hospital’s CEO, and the St. Jude leadership have closely monitored and participated in the development of the school, and have properly accepted no compromises in quality. One important lesson I have learned at St. Jude is that when the institution decides to do something, it is done right.
What made you personally interested in leading the effort?
SW: I’ve always been invested in graduate education, so I was delighted to be given the opportunity to develop this new school. I was given a similar opportunity 20 years ago to establish a new Department of Structural Biology at St. Jude. To once again create a new enterprise within the hospital and contribute to the development of this remarkable institution is a rare and distinct honor.
Any final words of advice for the new first-year students?
SW: The students have all been selected based on prior research experience and have therefore already started to develop their research interests and research preferences. However, before choosing their final PhD topics and disciplines, I would strongly urge them during this first year to experience the widest possible range of ongoing St. Jude research and to take full advantage of our uniquely collaborative environment.