Baker to head biology dept. Discusses department goals and passion for science

E.C. Whitehead Professor, Biology Graduate Program Co-Director, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator Tania A. Baker has been named as the next head of the department of biology. She will assume the position on April 1, succeeding Chris A. Kaiser PhD ’88, who was selected to run the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) in October. Baker was the associate department head for biology from 1999 to 2004.

“Professor Baker, like her predecessor Chris Kaiser, is a former MacVicar Faculty Fellow who will, I am sure, maintain the department’s standing as a premier educator of biologists, and as a world-leading department in biological research,” said School of Science Dean Marc A. Kastner in a statement through the News Office. “I am thrilled that she has agreed to take on the leadership of the department at a time when biology plays a bigger role than ever at the Institute.”

The Tech caught up with Baker in her office to talk about her goals for the biology department and her career.

The Tech: How do you feel about becoming the new biology department head?

Tania Baker: I am honored to have the confidence of my colleagues and the dean, and I feel very fortunate that my career has been supported by some great department heads in the past. I’ve been here almost 20 years, and over that time, I’ve really been helped by the great environment created by previous department heads; I hope I can give back some effort to the department that will help the careers of others.

TT: What are some of your goals as department head?

TB: The department is strong and vibrant, so I think we want to continue to be a cutting edge institution for biological research, as well as a great place for teaching and learning at the undergraduate and graduate level.

We want to maintain that, but biology is a fast-moving field, so we have to make sure we’re reflecting the modern, most up-to-date investigations and approaches. For example, some of the technology that is exceedingly commonplace today wasn’t even used at all five years ago, or was just starting to be used. Great ways to keep renewing our department is by hiring young faculty, and by creating and refreshing the courses in order to keep the biology department the world-class place that it is.

In addition, it is very important to continue the department’s efforts toward building communication and networks between the biology-related sciences across the Institute. I want to first educate myself in more detail about what’s going on, and then help figure out how we can all work together in a community.

TT: So on the interdisciplinary note, what are your views on the new Course 6-7 created last year?

TB: I was actually talking to one of the faculty members this week about making sure we’d have the appropriate type of courses that would be of interest to the students that are going to be coming down the pipeline in that major, but I am still learning.

My job in the department directly previous to this one was as co-director of the PhD program, so I’ve been less involved in the undergraduate program recently. But seven years ago, I was associate head of the department, so I was very involved in teaching and course placements, the curriculum, etc. I haven’t gotten everybody’s opinion on the nitty-gritty of how 6-7 is going, but it’s definitely on our radar screen. We want to think of upper-division electives that will be appropriate for people with this interest profile. It’s an area that will continue to strengthen our department.

TT: What has been your favorite part of being at MIT, biology or otherwise?

TB: The swimming pool! (Laughs) But really, I love the can-do attitude people have around here. You bring an idea to someone, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, we can do that!”

And for my own research, it’s been really great to be at a school that’s a science and technology school. I’ve had a lot of interactions with chemistry, biological engineering, and other departments, collaborating and helping each other out with different experiments and techniques. Sometimes you’ll have an idea, and two days later someone’s built something or figured out how to synthesize the molecule you need.

There’s a real love of problem-solving and curiosity — in our case — about how life works. That’s part of the culture that I really like.

TT: Have you had to overcome hurdles or roadblocks on your career path?

TB: I’m dyslexic, so as an undergraduate, as a high school student, I had significant hurdles. There were courses that were required that I wasn’t getting the greatest grades in. I was very bad at foreign language, which was a requirement for a basic science major in many universities, so I couldn’t be a molecular biology major. I took Spanish three times and I had to drop, and I took French twice and I had to drop, so I ended up majoring in biochemistry in the school of agriculture.

I got support from people, but this was before there was so much knowledge about learning disabilities. I had accommodations in high school, but when I got to college, there were none. But I’ve had a very, very fortunate career. I always just keep trying, and things have gone very well. I was a successful graduate student at Stanford, then a successful postdoc at the NIH, and then I came here.

TT: What triggered your interest in biology?

TB: I was a good science student in junior high, or whenever we started having labs and things like that. I was noticeably good at it, which was pretty cool. We had a lot of life science books at home that we just spent a lot of time reading. I was raised by a single mother — my father died when I was six years old, so my brother and my sister and I hung out alone a lot (laughs), so we read all these books and watched National Geographic on TV. That National Geographic theme song still gets my heart pumping, which makes my kids think I’m nuts — I mean, they like it too! But they’re like, “Mom, you’re a little overly crazy about this!”

But I think it was when I went to college that my interest really grew. I was planning on majoring in physical therapy, and the first year of the major was a basic science curriculum. I really liked the biology course, and I remember learning certain things and talking about them all the time to my friends. It clearly sparked my interest.

I also had a job when I was a college sophomore where I was initially working as a babysitter for two scientists — one was a course instructor and one had a lab. They got a live-in babysitter, and so they hired me in their lab, and I was doing stuff like autoclaving pipette tips and washing flasks, and I just kept learning more and more about how research labs work from this experience and meeting graduate students doing research.

The type of experience that you get from working through things in a research lab versus the type of knowledge that you get from taking classes, they’re two different parts of the puzzle, and you need them both. Undergraduate research is essential.

TT: What are you looking forward to most as department head?

TB: In taking on this challenge, what I’m really looking forward to is working with the whole community — the students, the staff, the whole school of science — to help create a good place to do biological research and be leaders in biology education. I’m really looking forward to getting to know and work with the whole community. It has really great growth potential for me, since I think you go through phases of opening your interactions with broader scopes of people, versus focusing down on a specific area of research. So I’m looking forward to an opening phase and looking forward to learning about things that people are working on and thinking about.

It’s always extremely difficult to predict what area of biology we should target for future growth in the department, but I don’t think there are major holes in our program that we’re desperate to fix. I need to talk to all the faculty in the department, and I want to have round table meetings with students and postdocs to hear their ideas, but since we’re such a strong department, we’re not in need of any huge change in direction.