Teresa Garrett has a small painting of a cow on her wall, a recent purchase from the Amherst County Fair. The painting is an outward manifestation of the dean’s embracing Sweet Briar. She arrived on campus in July — with her husband, Chris — once again making the deanery home to the College’s academic dean.
Teresa came to Sweet Briar from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where she most recently served as associate dean of the faculty. She also grew up in Poughkeepsie, but headed south during high school and attended Florida State University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in biochemistry.
“Like a lot of science- and math-minded individuals, I went into my undergraduate degree thinking I was going to be a medical doctor,” Teresa says. She went to college with enough credit to begin as a sophomore. When she arrived, the pre-med advisor started talking about three years of college, taking the MCATs and going straight to med school. That’s when she “freaked out,” Teresa recalls. “I remember the darkness of the sky outside of his office during that conversation,” she says. She took an honors chemistry lab the following semester in which she did original research. This turned out to be the first step on her professional path. While working in the lab that semester, she was paired with a faculty member who was doing RNA research. Teresa found that exciting, and the experience taught her a lot. “I was a total lab nerd from that point on, and all thoughts of med school went right out the window,” she says. “That’s where I learned to be a research scientist.” She joined a new lab that summer and stayed in it for the rest of her undergraduate experience, earning authorship on two peer-reviewed papers.
Following Florida State, she went to graduate school at Duke — along with Chris, and the two married after their first year. At that point, Teresa planned to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry, do a high-profile post-doctoral fellowship, get her own research lab and win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. High ambitions!
While pursuing her degree at Duke, Teresa studied lipids from E. coli with an amazing mentor, Chris Raetz. “He had no trouble dealing with my rapid-fire questions about everything,” she told us. “And that was everything I love about science. Working with him was a great experience. He let me take risks and gave me hard things to do because he assumed I’d be able to do them.” And she did.
After three years of grad school, however, she realized that there was no natural place on the road to the Nobel Prize to have children and she had to make a choice between pursuing that dream and having a family. She chose family and defended her dissertation at the end of her fourth year when she was eight months pregnant.
She went back to the lab after the birth of her daughter, but found that she missed being at home, so she stopped working and was mostly a stay-at-home mom for almost five years. “The decision to stop working was lonely because it felt like no one else had ever found a way to navigate their way back,” she remembers. “But that’s not true. Lots of people do it; they just don’t talk about it.” When she went back to work, she was surrounded by people who had not taken time off to be with their children, but she doesn’t regret her choice: “I had a deep desire to be with my children.”
When she returned to work, she did some part-time teaching at Duke in the School of Nursing and taught a 6-week intensive course for medical students. Ultimately, she worked with her Ph.D. mentor on a new endeavor where she served as the project manager. She also taught undergraduate biochemistry in the summer.
In 2007, she returned to her hometown to become a faculty member at Vassar — her first full-time position. She brought with her a research program on studying lipids in E. coli and collaborated with undergraduates. In fact, she was drawn to Vassar because of the ability to work closely with students while being a researcher and teacher.
It was while she was at Vassar that she entered the world of higher education administration. She came to that because of her work with assessment. The college had been directed to do a better job with student assessment and that work gave her the opportunity to jump into the deep end of administration and manage some change on a college-wide level. She’s proud of her work and of the way she was able to support junior faculty. She sees her role, then and now, as being an elevator of people, helping them to be successful and do good work.
That philosophy has become an important part of her life and it’s one of the reasons she has come to Sweet Briar. In addition, she’ll have more opportunity to interact with students. Although she enjoys her work in administration, it has taken her away from students. She is excited that there are lots of opportunities to change that at Sweet Briar. “I’m a teacher and mentor at heart and I’m committed to supporting students and helping them to be amazing,” Teresa says. “It’s not just about teaching content. The content isn’t the priority; the students are. I don’t want the Office of the Dean to be the place students come only when they’re in trouble. I want the office to be a place where students can get support.” And knowing that she’s made a difference to students is what makes the work meaningful for her. “There have been moments where I have really seen that I’ve made a difference in a student’s life — when they’ve come back to me and expressed gratitude for what they’ve learned and for her being there. The impact we have as educators may not ever come into the consciousness of students — or it may come far down the road. But that’s okay.”
She believes in the mission of Sweet Briar College and knows that with a good liberal arts education, a student can delve into any field — because they’ll graduate equipped with a broad vision of the world and the ability to see the connections among fields. “Students should engage deeply in a broad curriculum,” she observes. “Supporting a broad liberal arts curriculum is central to the core of Sweet Briar and will also launch our students into success.” In fact, although she’s a scientist, she defines herself as deeply creative — her research fires her imagination and she is saddened by the fact that society often devalues creative professions.
In addition, she’s glad to be able to work at a women’s college. She’s grateful for a college that designs its program for women in a way that’s different from what’s available at coed schools. “I’m kind of done with women making less than men and the tone of our voices being called out. To be at an institution where women can be elevated to make a difference in the world? I’m all about that,” she says. In addition, she appreciates Sweet Briar’s commitment to increasing the representation of women in positions of leadership. She notes that what women bring to the table is different and enriches the research and science that is done. “As a woman, I have experienced and seen people being treated poorly in research environments. As there are more of us in the field, less of that should happen. Humanity and kindness should be an expected part of how science is done,” she says.
Indeed, she has a desire to increase the representation of all sorts of voices, including people of color, those with different gender identities, different religions and more. “We have to create an environment where these different ideas can move our society forward in a way that’s really needed,” she notes. “We have an obligation to elevate the STEM corner of our society.”
She’ll be looking at Sweet Briar’s whole academic program and bringing students and faculty into the conversation about how to move the needle on enrollment, retention and learning. She wants to encourage the faculty to bring students along as they do their research and to work hard to “settle the soil” after the earthquake that was 2015. “This is a fertile place for those discussions,” she says. “I’m going to plant a few seeds that will bloom and be amazing.”
When not at the office, Teresa is a triathlete and enjoys swimming and biking in her spare time. She loves being outside and is in awe of the natural beauty that surrounds the Sweet Briar campus. She also enjoys entertaining and is looking forward to the deanery becoming a place of community and fellowship.
Teresa and Chris have just celebrated 24 years of marriage and they have two daughters: a senior at the University of Connecticut and a sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder. The family dog is named Daisy, so perhaps it’s fate that brought them to Sweet Briar.