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Provost’s blog

Sharing my journey, from first-gen college student to provost

Provost Tricia Serio in a lab.

I was a full professor and a department chair before it occurred to me to tell anyone my own story. One day, several years ago, I met with a first-generation college student who was also a first-generation American citizen. She had just won our department’s top academic award and expressed her perception that she wasn’t “good enough” to continue on to graduate or medical school. During this conversation, she specifically pointed to me as an example of “what it took.” For the first time, I realized that the official version of me – my visible academic achievements – was presenting a limited view of who I actually am. When I told her about my own background, she was stunned.

I was the first in my family to attend – and graduate from – college, an achievement made possible by a Pell Grant, student loans, a campus job as an RA, and scholarships. When I started college, I had no frame of reference; my father didn’t graduate from high school, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I ultimately became a scientist, but when I entered college, I had no idea that becoming one was even a career path. In important ways, serendipity – and my approach of trying things to figure out what I should be doing – made all the difference. I found out about undergraduate research by accident when a friend, whose parents were both medical doctors, started working in a lab. I had no idea what research was, but it sounded interesting. I found a faculty member who was willing to have me join his group. Quite unexpectedly, I discovered a passion for experimental science that I didn’t even know that I had.

My path through college was anything but straightforward. When I decided to change my major from pre-dentistry to molecular biology, I suddenly had to fit four years of requirements into three. My parents were unconditionally supportive, but they were anxious about the unknown and as a result frequently asked me if I was doing the “right thing.”

But my college advisor met with me regularly to make sure that I was on track, one semester at a time. Bolstered by her constant support and mentorship, I decided to apply to graduate school, and went on to build an academic career as a biochemist, teacher, program director, department head, dean and provost.

I want to be clear that, other than a strong streak of stubbornness, there is nothing particularly remarkable about me. I ended up here today because I have benefitted immensely and consistently throughout my entire education and career, even to this day, by a whole team of mentors. They believed in me when I couldn’t see it myself and supported me when I didn’t know what I needed.

Along the way, my background and gender set me apart, and these differences were made apparent to me by my peers and colleagues – everything from a professor asking me why I was enrolled in his course to a department chair asking me if my pregnancies were planned.

As I relayed this story to the promising undergraduate student, I realized what a difference mentors can make. Over the next few years, I took an active role in mentoring her as she worked in a lab, took a few of my classes, applied to and was admitted to an M.D.-Ph.D. program, and was awarded an NIH fellowship for her dissertation work. She had all of the talent in the world to achieve these things; she just needed someone to help her to navigate her options and to cheer her on. She was also amazingly talented outside of science, and she painted a picture for me, which hangs in my office now as a reminder of what’s important.

November 8th is National First-Generation College Celebration when we celebrate the success and presence of first-generation students, faculty and staff on all of our campuses. More than 30 percent of UW undergraduates are first-generation students, and each of us contributes to their success, whether we teach introductory courses, provide student support services or maintain academic spaces. As my story shows, even the smallest of actions can have a significant impact by helping first-generation students to realize more quickly that a difference in experience is not an impediment to achieving their aspirations given their ability, talent, creativity, dedication, and passion.

The trajectory of my life was transformed by my opportunity to earn a college degree, and the key aspect of that transformation was finding a passion for science. For me, this work is about paying forward the gift that I have received. Through my own experience, I know that whenever we teach, mentor or guide a first-generation student, their lives and our world will be changed for the better.

When I’m asked who was my most influential role model, I never hesitate. It was my dad, who always supported me and grounded me in realistic expectations. Whenever I was struggling, he would ask if I was doing my best and would remind me that my best was all that could ever be asked of me. I’ve learned over the course of my life and career that the support of others expands what my best looks like and the great joy that comes with serving in that role for others.

Academic Affairs support for the UW community

Dear Colleagues,

President Cauce shared a statement with our community on Monday following a horrific series of terror attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians over the weekend. This tragedy has now resulted in an escalation of violence impacting civilians in both Israel and Gaza. I share her devastation about the tragic loss of life, her concern for the members of our own campuses, who have family, friends, and loved ones in the region amid the on-going violence, and her call for productive dialogue that promotes understanding and peace.

The Office of Global Affairs is in contact with the members of our community who are currently in the affected area and is providing them with support. At this time, the university also recommends deferring all official university travel to Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria.

Beyond the resources shared in the President’s message, the following offices are available to support you on academic matters:

I also acknowledge that many members of our university are likely struggling to be fully present in their normal activities on our campuses during this crisis.  I ask that each one of us consider how we can support those members of our community in distress with outreach, increased flexibility, and appropriate accommodations at your discretion during this difficult time. It is my hope that our faculty, staff, and students can find some solace in the kindness and connections within our community always and especially during times of tragedy.


Tricia R. Serio
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
Professor, Biochemistry

Getting to know Provost Tricia Serio

Portrait of Provost Tricia Serio
Provost Tricia Serio

When President Ana Mari Cauce launched the search for a new provost last year, she asked the search committee to seek candidates who “value our tradition of shared governance and who share our commitment to creating a community that is equitable and inclusive — values that are requirements for world-changing scholarship, discovery, innovation and teaching.” In our new provost, President Cauce says, we have found someone who embodies all of that — and more.

Tricia R. Serio became the University’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs on Aug. 1. A first-generation college graduate, she was provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as well as a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“I was initially drawn to this role because of the UW’s global reputation for excellence,” she wrote in a message to the UW community on her first day. “In everything that I read and knew anecdotally about the UW, it was clear to me that this excellence in teaching, research and service is driven by a shared commitment to the success of all members of our UW community. This is a value that deeply resonates with me.”

Once she accepted the position in mid-May, she and her spouse Jeff Laney, a senior biology lecturer, had to move fast to get to Seattle by Aug. 1. They quickly sold their house in Massachusetts, purchased a house in northeast Seattle, moved cross-country with their sons Eli, 16, and Jacob, 19 — along with their rescued dog, Delilah, and cats, Poppy and Peanut — and took Jacob to his first year of college at Pitzer College in California.

Since then, Provost Serio has been getting to know the UW. Below, she describes her leadership style and decision-making process, her thoughts on shared governance, and the importance of access, diversity and belonging.

Could you describe the role of the provost, and how you are approaching the position? 

As the academic officer, I believe that the key role of the provost is the stewardship of academic excellence. For me, that role encompasses being a strong advocate for the success of faculty, staff and students, acting as an integrator to elevate initiatives to new heights through connection, and facilitating new pathways to success, across our three campuses.

How are you getting to know the UW? 

First and foremost, I am trying to talk to as many people as possible. I have been walking the Seattle campus every day, and I’ve visited Bothell and Tacoma. I took a Seattle campus tour for prospective students (with my sons as decoys!). I think my favorite thing on the Seattle campus so far is the duck ramp at Drumheller Fountain — such a simple and powerful statement about care for others.

I’ve also appreciated the many emails that I have received from faculty and staff, and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversations. I welcome ongoing feedback and ideas, and I’m planning regular blog posts to address issues, explore ideas and highlight successes, in addition to a town hall in February.

What themes are you hearing as you meet with faculty, staff and students across the University? 

The overwhelming constant is excitement — everyone aspires to bring the University forward in this post-pandemic world. At the same time, I’m so impressed with the framing of that opportunity. People are realistic about the challenges that have arisen amid these changes, and they are inspired to innovate to address them. I’m confident that we will be successful together because everyone is focused on supporting people as the foundation of all of our opportunities.

How would you describe your leadership style? 

I’d say that my leadership style is both relational and adaptive. I try very hard to understand a situation and the needs of people involved by listening. Then, I adopt the leadership style that will most effectively support forward momentum in that context. That’s typically a mix of articulating a vision, inviting collaboration, setting tangible goals and coaching for success.

What’s your decision-making process? 

I’m an analytical person by nature, and I’m most comfortable in a data-informed space. That said, data can also be limiting, especially when charting new directions. I believe that diverse perspectives are essential to making the best decisions, and I prioritize processes that are iterative with stakeholders. I like to construct a draft model or define key objectives as a starting point and then give others time and space to make it better. It’s been my experience that these discussions help not only to direct solutions that best support diverse needs and opportunities, but also to illuminate the trade-offs that often need to be made.

How will you determine your priorities? What do you see as opportunities for the UW? How will you develop long-range vision and planning? 

I think there’s always an expectation, or perhaps fear, that priorities will dramatically shift when a new leader joins a university. But I have always felt that it is the university community as a collective that drives the distinct contributions of the institution. I approach these transitions more as an opportunity to refocus and reinvigorate existing initiatives by asking where we have momentum to take the next steps and also to identify new opportunities to leverage our expertise at this particular time. In this post-COVID world, this fresh look is incredibly important for both existing and new initiatives because so much has changed. I believe that my role in this process is to bring a different perspective, and alternative approaches to the ideation. I’m starting this work by integrating past strategic plans into an umbrella that captures the continuity arch of academic affairs, and I will be asking leaders across the University, including faculty, staff and students, to partner with me to articulate the spaces within this framework where we can have specific impact in the next three to five years.

What are your thoughts on shared governance, and how are you getting to know faculty leaders? 

I highly value shared governance as a key component of collaborative decision making, and I have already met with the chair of the Faculty Senate and the chair of Senate Committee on Planning and Budgeting to learn more about their priorities this year. I look forward to similar discussions with the Faculty Assembly at Tacoma and the General Faculty Organization at Bothell, as well as the leadership of the Associated Students of the UW (ASUW) student government and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, now that autumn quarter has begun. I look forward to partnering with each group in support of our University.

When it comes to faculty diversity, how do we continue to accelerate our recruitment and retention efforts? 

Access is a core value for both the UW and for me, and recruiting and retaining faculty who bring diverse perspectives to our work is foundational to our mission. The UW can and should be a leader in employing, advancing and developing best practices to create an environment of opportunity and belonging for all. Access begins in recruiting by making sure the UW is looking everywhere for the best talent and continues through interviews and into hiring by ensuring qualified candidates don’t experience unnecessary barriers when joining our world-class faculty.

I’m in the midst of learning what is already in place at the University and how we can work together to advance our next steps in reaching this aspiration. Realizing this goal requires an ongoing commitment, and I intend to be a partner throughout that journey.

In addition to your leadership role as provost, you hold a faculty appointment in the UW School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry. Could you describe your research and how you chose biochemistry?  

My work is on prions, which are best known for their association with severe neurodegenerative diseases such as mad cow disease. Prions are proteins that are unusual in that they can change their three-dimensional shape. When this occurs, they take on new activities that can often be pathogenic. I study the process by which prions change shape and the conditions that allow this process to be reversed. We use nonpathogenic prions in baker’s yeast as a model for genetic, molecular and cell biological and biochemical experiments and have a long-standing collaboration with an applied mathematician (Suzanne Sindi at the University of California, Merced) to understand these dynamics from a quantitative perspective. This collaboration has been the most exciting aspect of my work because it has led to insights that we would have never achieved working strictly within my own discipline, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity for the trainees who work with me to broaden their own development beyond my expertise.

I’m a first-generation college graduate, and when I began college, I didn’t even know that being a scientist was a career option. My biology class was my favorite in high school, and as I took more courses in college, I realized that I was very interested in molecular mechanisms — they always seemed like a puzzle to be figured out to me. A friend told me that he was planning to do undergraduate research (an opportunity that was completely unknown to me), and when I started working in a lab, I realized that designing experiments was the way scientists figured things out. I was (and still am) enamored by the challenge of finding ways to ask these questions. But the thing that is most exciting to me is that every question answered leads to a whole new set of questions to ask.

Will you move your lab here? How will you balance your research with your responsibilities as provost? 

Yes — my lab will move by the end of the calendar year. My own research program has definitely scaled back in size as my administrative roles have become more extensive. But keeping one toe in that space has been important to me for many reasons. It keeps me directly engaged in discovery and teaching and therefore in the life of a faculty member. I’m also fascinated by my area of research, love to think about it and hope that I still have something to contribute.

How do we, as a large R1 research university, ensure each of our students has the best possible Husky Experience? 

Public R1 institutions are very unique (and in my opinion special) places where students learn directly from faculty on the forefront of discovery and creative activity and have an opportunity to directly participate in these innovations. For me, the keys to realizing the potential impact of this model are to ensure that students are able to self-curate their own journeys through an integration of their curricular, co-curricular and career development activities and to feel that they belong and are therefore uninhibited in contributing to the activities of the university. I believe that we all have a role to play in ensuring that our students have the best possible Husky Experience through our direct interactions with them, through our policy and decision-making roles, and most importantly through our innovative thinking. I challenge us all to think about how we can bring new approaches to helping students navigate the tremendous number of opportunities available to them as UW students as a core component of our focus on impact.

How are you spending your free time? 

Right now — unpacking boxes! We’ve been terribly inefficient because we had to prioritize getting our oldest son to college. We are making progress though, and we are looking forward to having more time to explore the city and the Pacific Northwest.

I’m currently reading “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr and “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver. (As an avid reader, I typically have one fiction and one nonfiction in process in parallel). We have one dog, Delilah, and two cats, Poppy and Peanut — all rescues. We lost our other dog Sandy — also a rescue — earlier this spring and miss her terribly. I am also a knitter (among other fiber arts), and I enjoy long walks in nature and time with family.

I am honored and thrilled to serve as your provost

Dear colleagues,

Today, my first day at the University of Washington, I am writing to share how honored and thrilled I am to serve as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. I especially want to thank Mark Richards for his service to the UW, and President Cauce and the Executive Office for their support during my transition.

I was initially drawn to this role because of the UW’s global reputation for excellence. In everything that I read and knew anecdotally about the UW, it was clear to me that this excellence in teaching, research and service is driven by a shared commitment to the success of all members of our UW community. This is a value that deeply resonates with me.

Throughout the interview process and the time leading up to my arrival, I have come to appreciate how the academic and professional support structures of the University and the people who define its culture of innovation, collaboration, and encouragement create innumerable paths to this success. I have long believed that we are all elevated by working and learning together, and that this strength will ensure that we continue to define our own bright future and transformational impact in the world. As I now become a part of the fabric of this University, I am both humbled and inspired to partner with you and President Cauce to extend this amazing trajectory together.

My family and I are settling into our new home in northeast Seattle, trying to unpack our boxes as quickly as possible so we can begin to explore the city and the Pacific Northwest — I welcome your suggestions about your favorite spots!

In the coming weeks and months, I look forward to meeting you, listening, learning more about my new academic home, and working together to chart the path to our next phase of collective aspirations.

Wishing you a healthy, restorative, and inspiring remainder of the summer,

Tricia Serio
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
Professor, Biochemistry