UW News

June 9, 2022

Faculty Field Tour resumes Monday after COVID pause, connecting faculty from all three UW campuses with Washington state

UW News

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The Faculty Field Tour resumes Monday for the first time since 2019. About three dozen new faculty from all three UW campuses and across disciplines, take part in a five-day tour of Washington state. This photo, taken in 2019, shows the group at Washington Pass.University of Washington

In the fall of 2020, amid the COVID pandemic, Kara Wells began her career as an assistant professor of accounting at the University of Washington Bothell’s business school.

“The entire first academic year I was here was completely remote,” she said.

Wells moved to the Pacific Northwest from Texas, having visited Seattle only once before. When she arrived, restaurants were shuttered or takeout only. Communities were reeling from the lockdown. Being a tourist in her new home state wasn’t something Wells could fit in.

Until now.

As in-person activities resume, Wells is one of 34 faculty preparing to board a charter bus for a five-day, 1,000-mile tour of Washington showcasing the state’s beauty, economy and people. The bus, the same one used by Athletics, is wrapped with branded UW logos, and motorists often mistake the faculty for the Husky football team.

After a two-year, pandemic-driven hiatus, the Faculty Field Tour, a nearly 25-year tradition at UW, resumes Monday morning when participants gather at the Burke Museum. From there, the bus heads south and then stops throughout the state before returning Friday afternoon.


Read more about the Faculty Field Tour in this Yakima Herald-Republic opinion piece by School of Public Health Dean Hilary Godwin and Vice-Provost Ed Taylor.

“I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to not only get to know other colleagues that are new to UW, but also good to explore this new state,” Wells said. “What better way than to have a guided tour?”

What began in the 1990s to help bridge the connection between UW faculty and communities around the state, evolved by 1998 to the multiday Faculty Field Tour. Just about every year since, with rare exceptions including the COVID pause, faculty members from all three campuses and across disciplines become a cohort, learning from one another and from the residents, businesspeople, students, farmers and policymakers they meet along the way.

By the time the week is over, the more than 600 participants over the years have developed a sense of belonging: knowing and respecting the breadth of work housed at the UW, and discovering the depths of Washington’s history and culture, said Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, who has been deeply involved in the program since the mid-2000s.

As a public institution, faculty at UW pursue their own fields but also have a larger obligation in their careers to shape and analyze events in the state.

“We are here to partner in telling the story of the state of Washington,” Taylor said.

The bus tour, paid for by participating faculty’s department and central university funds, leaves Seattle and heads south to Olympia, where the group tours the Capitol and meets with elected officials and policymakers. From there, they stop at Mount St. Helens for a guided lecture from Seth Moran, a volcano seismologist with U.S. Geological Survey and an affiliate UW faculty member. Monday night is spent in Vancouver.

“We serve the entire state and we wanted to make sure from the outset that faculty had the opportunity to experience some of our regions that are more rural, or have different economic drivers, different cultures or different feelings and expectations about the purpose and experience of higher education,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “It’s also a way of introducing citizens from across the state to the excellent faculty we have at the UW who might serve as teachers or mentors for their students if they were to attend the UW, or who might be good collaborators on community or research projects.”

On Tuesday, the tour will stop at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic in Toppenish. In collaboration with the UW, the clinic provides comprehensive medical, dental and social services to local agricultural workers. Pediatric residents from the UW School of Medicine also serve a rotation at the clinic to address the occupational and environmental health concerns of farmworkers and their families.

“It was as much about us getting an introduction to the state as it was the state getting to know how the university is showing up in different places,” said Rubén Casas, a UW Tacoma assistant professor who went on the Faculty Field Tour in 2019.

A secondary, but very valuable outcome that emerged from the tour was the cross-pollination among faculty of different departments and disciplines, Cauce said.

“The tour has fostered personal and professional relationships that might never have formed otherwise, and it’s one more way that the UW works to overcome the traditional silos that occur in academia,” she said. “Creating time for newer faculty to get to know the leadership is critical in an organization like ours that relies on a shared governance model. I’ve gone on many of the tours over the years, and each one is uniquely and incredibly valuable in terms of both helping faculty connect with the communities of the state that we serve and with each other.”

As a result of connections made on the Faculty Field Tour, Casas has developed cross-campus relationships. Today he is on the Faculty Steering Committee for Urban@UW, he is the faculty lead for the Urban Environmental Justice Initiative, and he was inspired by leaders he met on the bus to serve in governance on the tri-campus Faculty Senate.

“Not only have I made new connections with colleagues,” Casas said, “it’s really sustained my work, and now I’m in a new role where I am helping to support other folks that are coming into the university.”

Patrick M. Boyle, an assistant professor of bioengineering, also attended the 2019 tour. He considers the tour the “most consequential professional development thing I’ve done in my life.” Today, Boyle is a program champion.

“It is something that is so unique and something so special and I tell every new faculty, ‘Listen, get on board for this. If you can go do it, it is so cool,” Boyle said. Participating faculty must get approval from their department chairs.

It was on the bus that Boyle, who leads the Cardiac Systems Simulation Lab, met Alison E. Fohner, an assistant professor of epidemiology. Building from that connection, the pair recently co-authored a paper on the use of technology to predict adverse cardiovascular events by analyzing ECGs of COVID patients.

From Toppenish, the tour explores the fertile agriculture of the Yakima River valley, stopping at a cherry orchard and enjoying a wine tasting, some made by Husky alumni. They plan to visit Heritage University, a private school founded to expand access to higher education. And during a fireside chat that evening in Tri-Cities, the group will hear from UW Provost Mark Richards.

Next, the group stops at the Hanford Site to tour the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which was designed to open the field of gravitational-wave astrophysics through the direct detection of gravitational waves as predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Run today by Caltech and MIT, UW professors have been instrumental in some of the key findings first detected by LIGO.

“I remember being so just happy, just looking around like a kid in a candy shop,” Boyle recalled.

Traveling north and east, the team stops in Ritzville to visit the Schoesler wheat farm, then to Spokane, where the group meets with the city’s civic leaders, alumni and incoming students from Eastern Washington.

From there, they begin the drive back west, taking in the Grand Coulee Dam and spending time with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The final night is spent in Mazama before returning to Seattle by way of Washington Pass.

“I want to explore, learn the history and do so very intentionally,” said Seba Bishu, an assistant professor in the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance who began at UW last fall.

Bishu moved the United States 14 years ago from Ethiopia. She’s travelled the country while getting her education, but didn’t explore much of Colorado, where she lived and taught at the University of Denver the past four years. Now at the UW, she’s immersing herself in the Pacific Northwest.

“I’m reading books, I’m watching documentaries about the city of Seattle,” Bishu said. “This, to me, is a great opportunity to learn about the politics, the sociology of the community, you know, the people in this area.”