Leadership insight: Q&A with Janet Larson

Janet Larson, Chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Biological Sciences, sat down with Jaime Meyers to discuss faculty, research, diversity and more.

Jaime Meyers (JM): What are the main responsibilities of your job as chair of UMSN’s Department of Health Behavior and Biological Sciences?

JL: A big part of my job is making sure individual faculty and staff members are successful. We have 50 some people in the department.  When they are successful, the department is successful. A lot of the nitty-gritty work is in faculty recruiting, the hiring process and helping them understand expectations.

There’s also the annual evaluation process for faculty. I have two faculty members involved in the process but I’d really like to make it a peer review to have more people involved and giving feedback.

Teaching assignments are a big part of my job and making sure all the courses are covered. We have six nurse practitioner programs which means lots of clinical sections. The faculty program leads are really important in the process to find the preceptors. I also work closely with Human Resources on arrangements.

JM: How does the UMSN’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion impact your role?

JL: If we don’t have diverse faculty, some students won’t have anybody to identify with and we aren’t going to be able to recruit the best students. Really good role models are important for students to be successful. Gender minorities are important too which, in nursing, includes men.

When I first started, there was a decent amount of African-American faculty. They certainly weren’t overrepresented, but they were there. But there was a gap and when they retired, there weren’t replacements. I think nurse practitioner programs syphoned off a lot of bright and talented nurses who could have done the faculty role, but they liked NP practice. So in broad terms, it cut down on faculty candidates in general and that hurt diversity. We‘re beginning to make a little headway and I’m very excited about the faculty joining us in the fall. 

JM: What non-scientific lessons have you learned in your research on people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease? Editor’s note: COPD is an umbrella term for progressive lung disease which can making breathing and physical activity difficult.

JL:  Family is really important. It can be positive or negative. Some people really fight to retain their function. Others are more accepting. You can be graceful either way, in your acceptance or in your fight. The alternative is true too, some people get really depressed by their loss of function and their condition. Some of that is natural; getting through it is what is important.

JM: Who are your mentors?

JL: As a scientist, it was my PhD mentor at Illinois Mi Ja Kim. Also, John Sharp. He’s a physician scientist and I worked in his lab. More broadly, is Joan Shaver. She was my former dean at Illinois. She helped me think about leadership and faculty development in a really positive way that helped me grow. I also learn from the faculty I work with here every day. There’s no doubt. It goes both ways.

JM: If you couldn’t be a nurse, what would you do?

JL: Probably some sort of bench scientist. I initially didn’t want to be a nurse. I wanted to work in a chemistry lab but I did a tour in high school and it smelled so bad, I just knew I couldn’t live in that environment. I was also interested in psychology, so maybe some sort of counselor role. I could have done either one of those.

JM: What do you like about working on a campus like U-M’s?

JL: I came from a campus that was merged with the city. I like that this is one big academic campus. I like the vibe and having it all concentrated in one area. I find it inspiring because of everyone that came before us-- the people who built these buildings and walked through these halls, I really like that.

JM: What is an area that you would like to know more about or spend time working in at UMSN?

JL: Marketing and Communications. I like the idea of being creative. I don’t know that I have the skills for it but I think that would be cool.