When I learned that North Carolina State University had a scientist as our Chancellor I made it my personal goal to tell his middle school story. Finally, after a year of conducting Before They Were Scientists interviews, I had my chance. I recently sat down with Chancellor Randy Woodson in his office overlooking the iconic NCSU Bell Tower. He started our conversation by opening a three-ring-binder and flipping through the exhaustive list of questions I had sent the week before to help him prepare, “I went through all the questions and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m not that interesting.’ Are we going to do all of these?” I think Chancellor Woodson truly was (and still is) “that interesting” –- read on to learn how he went from banging blackboard erasers on a tree stump outside of his small school in Arkansas to running North Carolina State University.
Lea: Let’s start thinking about your middle school experience.
Chancellor Woodson: I grew up in a very very small, rural town in Arkansas so middle school wasn’t a concept I was familiar with. Schools in my town were broken into two; grades 1-6 and then grades 7-12. What this means is that you make the transition to high school when you are in the seventh grade and there are all of these big people there. Of course, putting that into context, I went to a very small school; I graduated with a class of about 60 students.
I grew up during the time of school integration. My seventh grade was the first year that our school fully integrated. I actually went to what had historically been the African American high school. It was an interesting time for learning because a lot of the things going on in school were really just about trying to adjust to the new norm. Interestingly the students weren’t the problem; it was the parents. My middle school time was marked by the challenges of going through those changes. But I had a very good science teacher, Ms. Levins, who created a comfortable place for a lot of us to be. I think I really started to think about biology at that time because her classroom was a bit of an oasis from all of the things going on when two separate schools, two separate cultures, came together into one.
What was your biggest worry while you were in middle school?
I don’t recall having any big worries. It was a pretty simple time. Probably my biggest worry was getting on the baseball team.
Did you get on the baseball team?
Of course! My gosh…
If you could give your middle school self, or a current middle school student in North Carolina, some advice — what would you say?
I think the best advice you can receive in middle school is to work hard in school. You have no idea what you’re going to become, so you have an opportunity to just take it all in and learn about various fields. One of the things that I didn’t get while growing up in a very rural town was a good sense of what was out there… what were things that I could do as an adult? Kids now are exposed to so much more — through media and other things. We only had one television station when I was growing up because we were so far away from Little Rock, and even that one was fuzzy. It was an isolated little world.
So I’d tell middle school students today to take advantage of the connectivity that we have now to learn about new opportunities.
What were some of your favorite books growing up?
I did have a lot of favorite books. I read all of the classic stuff — I loved Tom Sawyer. As I got a little older, I really enjoyed reading mysteries. I didn’t have one author that I read all the time, as we had a lot of books in our house. Mainly I liked classic literature, and particularly during high school when literature became a big part of English class. They were a big joy for me to read.
What were your favorite subjects in school? You mentioned that your science class was a favorite in middle school.
Science was my favorite subject in middle school. I had a teacher who helped inspire me. I almost got turned off of science in high school because of… boy I hope nobody reads this… a pretty bad chemistry teacher. I went to college thinking that I hated chemistry, but then I ended up majoring in it. In high school, I didn’t have a lot of teachers that helped connect science to the real world. I think that’s so important. When they’re teaching chemistry or physics or biology… being able to use examples that young people can connect to is important to help make it real for them.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up? What did they do?
First of all, my mother was a teacher — she taught eighth grade English. So I guess my biggest worry in middle school was getting my mother as a teacher… which I didn’t, thank goodness.
My father owned a construction company and then he sold it when I was in middle school and went back to college and got a second Master’s degree. My parents were both fully invested in education and so the only thing I think my parents consistently said to me was that they wanted me to get an education. I don’t know that they had a real desire for me to go into any particular field (…) growing up in a small town I didn’t know a scientist. I didn’t know that was a career option, but I knew going to college was important. When you’re in a very small, rural environment you see three kinds of professions: you see doctors, lawyers, teachers. I didn’t have a real goal to be any one of those things.
One of my dad’s best friends owned a big greenhouse range growing plants. So around eighth grade, I was — I know this is going to be hard to believe — a long-haired hippie. And I played electric guitar. Loudly. And that wasn’t particularly appealing to my parents, so one day my dad was fishing with this friend of his that ran the greenhouses and said, “You need to hire my son because he needs an outlet besides electric guitar and baseball.” And so I went to work in those greenhouses. The guy that owned them was named Roy Wayne Moseley. Three words. Roy. Wayne. Moseley. Roy Wayne had a Master’s degree in horticulture from Mississippi State and not only grew plants for a living, but was really quite into it. When I went to work for him, I think he got tired of all the questions I asked. I was always asking questions about why we did certain things, why we moved plants from one greenhouse to the other, why we changed the temperatures, why we changed the day length by pulling black cloth over the plants… And he kept giving me things to read: books about plants. I was so curious. Most of my biology teachers didn’t spend much time on plants. I don’t think they thought plants were interesting – primarily, I think, because they didn’t know anything about them.
…I was a long-haired hippie. And I played electric guitar. Loudly.
My parents’ focus was getting me to cut my hair and getting me ready to go to college. Beyond that, it wasn’t like, “You’re going to be this.” I became a curious pre-scientist because of the upbringing I had from my parents, but also because of working in those greenhouses, which I did all through high school and every summer while I was in college. I went to college to study plant biology thinking that I would graduate and either work for Roy Wayne or open my own plant production facility. But, as you know, that all changed.
Were your parents supportive of your decision to become a scientist?
Yes. I think they were shocked by it. It’s about your frame of reference – for example, if you grow up in Raleigh or in the Research Triangle you get exposed to what all of these big scientific companies do, but in Fordyce, Arkansas, not so much. I think throughout college my parents assumed that the whole reason I was studying plant biology was to grow plants. But I also had jobs working with faculty in labs and doing research. I became a scientist largely because of curiosity and wanting to answer questions about what plants do and how they do it. But I didn’t know that was an option in the eighth grade.
I became a scientist largely because of curiosity and wanting to answer questions about what plants do and how they do it.
Were you in any clubs or have any hobbies?
During middle school, I was a classic Southern, rural dude. Everybody in small rural towns plays outside and hunts and fishes and all of those things… the only real club I was in that was organized, because there weren’t many, was the Boy Scouts — it was a part of my connection to the natural world. Yet, I wasn’t very good at Scouts and so I didn’t get very far.
I played baseball. And I worked. I worked because … I wanted things. I wanted to buy a car. I wanted to take my girlfriend out. She’s now my wife — we started dating when I was in ninth grade and we dated all through high school.
I wanted to have things so working actually was my “club”… if that makes sense. I didn’t have a lot of time. I was a good student; I was in the Honors Society, I was in the Beta Club, I acted in high school and was part of the theatre group. We didn’t have high school baseball so playing baseball was just a summer activity.
During middle school I was a classic Southern, rural dude.
What was your first car that you bought with your money from working?
I bought a 1973 Vega. It was a terrible car. It was a Chevrolet and I bought it brand new when I was 16. It cost $5,600 and I paid half of it and the bank gave me a loan where I paid $53 a month for three years. It was a terrible car, though. It started guzzling oil at 5,000 miles, but I kept on driving it. I was huge into music — so if I didn’t become a scientist, I was going to play guitar. I played guitar and I went around and listened to bands. My parents were very … um… understanding. I’m not sure I let my kids do this, but I would go all over to listen to bands. I went to Dallas routinely, which was four hours from my home, to see Blue Oyster Cult … Led Zeppelin … Three Dog Night. I was a huge fan of music. I still play.
I was huge into music — so if I didn’t become a scientist, I was going to play guitar.
So what was your first concert?
My first concert was… this is going to be weird… I was in seventh grade and my parents made my older brother by three years take me. We went to see The Monkees. It was terrible.
Did you ever get into trouble when you were in school?
Yes, but not in a serious way. I wasn’t a bad guy. The usual stuff… I was a little hyperactive… [moving around in his seat] just a little… I had a hard time settling down. I would often find myself outside beating erasers on a stump because they needed me to get rid of some energy and I was disrupting class. I still have a bit of ADHD… just a little bit.
Did you collect anything?[laughs] For a long time I collected very old pennies. I got started because my great aunt gave me her collection of old pennies. I was constantly looking for really old pennies — they were different, they had the wheat on the side opposite of Lincoln. I was always looking for those. I also collected baseball cards. But I never collected anything that was particularly scientific.
Is there something, like a memento, that you keep with you from your childhood?
I’m afraid not. I don’t know what I have — [He looks around his spacious office, large glass vases and three ring binders fill the back wall behind his desk.] I wish, but no, I don’t have anything in my office from my childhood. It wasn’t a very interesting childhood.
Why do you say that?
Well… in childhood I wasn’t yet on a path to become a scientist. How about that? I certainly wasn’t on a path to become a chancellor… [thoughtfully] actually maybe I was… but I don’t use my science skills every day as chancellor.
What skills that you gained as a child do you feel that you use now?
I think mostly I gained those skills from my parents and the guy I worked for — it was how to interact with people… how to treat people. Because that’s what I use more every day than biochemistry and genetics, as chancellor, running a big place like NC State.
What are some of the mysteries that you left unresolved when you decided to focus more on leading? Is there anything you hope someone will take up and work on?
Boy, it’s hard to talk about this without getting very detailed, so I’ll try. I spent most of my career studying a single biochemical pathway and the effects of the compound that pathway produced. I studied the synthesis and action of a plant hormone called ethylene. It’s the predominant volatile hormone in plants.
My lab was interested in the question of what the key role of that hormone is in reproductive development of plants and in ripening of fruit and the senescence of flowers. Ethylene is a chemical signal in plants, but what it signals depends a lot on context as does when it signals. If you can figure out the details of when plants produce ethylene, you can manipulate those signals and trick fruits into ripening faster or slower or flowers into senescing later.
When I was transitioning into the “dark side” of academia we were really on the cusp of identifying some very key signals that turn this pathway (and ultimately ethylene’s production) on. Some of the mysteries I didn’t have a chance to solve have now been solved by other scientists — actually by some of my PhD students that are now professors at other institutions. One of those is the question of what the developmental trigger is that tells a part of a flower that it’s time to produce ethylene (and hence begin to senesce). Where does that signal originate? How does it move between parts of a flower? We were really starting to get at that question using some key genetic mutants that we’d identified that had various parts of the pathway broken or altered in some other way. We were going to use these mutants to understand the chemical basis of some of the signals and then also, how an understanding of that chemistry might be used to develop horticulturally superior varieties of flowers for shipping, storage, and handling.
Did you ever consider not being a scientist or not being a part of academia?
Not really… From the time I was a freshman in college and started interacting with faculty and saw what they did and understood that a career in academia was an option, my goal was to become a university professor and scientist. It was only when I really started to build some momentum as a scientist that I received occasional inquiries from big companies about working for them. But I was too committed to what we do in universities — I loved it, the teaching, building future scientists through graduate education, and interacting with graduate students and post docs — just the joy of discovering as part of an educational process. So I never, ever, really seriously thought about leaving the university.
The decision to leave the lab and go into academic administration was a hard one. It was slow. If the process had been “yes” stay in the lab or “no” leave the lab, I wouldn’t have left the lab. But I became an administrator over time. I was a department head, and I still had my lab. I was an associate dean, and I still had my lab. I was a dean and still had my lab. But as I became a dean, the time commitment to the job was starting to wear on my students because I wasn’t available. It was clear to me, particularly as I became a vice president and provost at Purdue, that I had to make a decision. I said, “OK, they want me to do this. If I do this, then I’m going in a different direction.” That’s when I had to make the decision to close down my research program. However, the great thing about being a university administrator, whether it’s as a dean or chancellor, is that you are still serving the fundamental mission of supporting an organization that does what you were inspired by.
But I was too committed to what we do in universities … just the joy of discovering as part of an educational process. The decision to leave the lab and go into academic administration was a hard one.
What was the most frustrating rule that your parents had?[pause and some deliberation]
If you don’t want to say because you’re afraid you’ll get in trouble with them…
No… they’re too old to do anything. They wouldn’t let me ride a motorcycle. At all. Ever.
Have you ever?
Of course. [giving me the same look from earlier when I asked whether or not he made the baseball team] So my parents, for whatever reason (probably for a good reason), were terrified of motorcycles. A lot of kids growing up had motorcycles, but not us. That was their rule. I graduated from high school and went to college and when I came home, my dad had a motorcycle! I was like, “DUDE! What’s up?!”
So the most trouble I got into… was when a friend of mine, Jonathan Eagle, traded me one day — he traded me his father’s motorcycle for my car. He drove my car and I rode his motorcycle and then my dad saw me.
What happened when he saw you?
I lost my car for quite a while. Yup. Of course I said, “Now, Dad – I paid for the car!” And he said, “You sleep in my house.”
I guess that’s better than sleeping in your car.
Is there anything from your childhood, maybe the strict rules on motorcycle riding, that informed how you set the rules for your own children?
I think that my parents were very open. We didn’t have a very restricted childhood, other than “Be safe” and all of that. My dad always said something to me that I said to my kids every time they went out. Every time I would go out at night, Dad would always say, “Remember who you are.” I’m still not sure what it means except “Be good, don’t get into trouble.” So I always said that to my kids when they were going out. What does it mean?
Have you ever asked your dad what he meant by that?
He was just implying that our actions reflected on our parents and our family. Don’t embarrass yourself or us.
If you could sum up your personal philosophy in one sentence, what would it be?
I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked this before… My personal philosophy is to always try to do the right thing and do it consistently and do it better tomorrow than I did today. Keep getting better at what I do.
I’m thinking about students who might not know what they want to do in their life — so how do you know if you’re doing the right thing?
In my world, and this is true from when I was a scientist and it’s true now that I’m an administrator; you never want to cut corners or be unethical or over-interpret data. You always want to step back and make sure that you’re thinking of things objectively and with the right frame of reference. Because you can be pushed into a situation where you feel like you have to do something, not because it’s the right thing, but because it’s the expected thing. So, it’s really about making sure that you’re being objective.
As a young boy did you ever imagine leading a university?[immediately] God, no. Not as a young boy, but also not as a grown-up. I didn’t … Seriously… I didn’t… People ask me this all the time. I do these lunches with students and they say, “When did you decide to become a chancellor?” I say, “Well, when they offered me the job.” That was just never my career goal. My career goal initially was to graduate. Then it was to get my PhD. Then it was to get my first job. Then it was to get my first grant. Then it was to graduate my first PhD student… and on and on and on. It’s incremental — at least for me, I didn’t have a strategic plan to become a chancellor. I had a strategic plan to become a better scientist, to recruit graduate students, to teach my courses. But, I’m kind of surprised… I’ve talked to some young academics who say, “I want to be a chancellor, how do I get there?” And I honestly don’t know how to answer that… except to say, “Do a good job. Be successful.” And learn how to lead in whatever context you’re in.
So, no, I did not envision being a university chancellor, or president, until I became one. That’s a disappointing answer, but it’s the truth.
If that’s the truth, then that’s the answer. There’s no right or wrong. Explain the future. What’s in store?
It’s a complicated future. That’s a word I use a lot, complicated. I’m a firm believer that education is empowerment, and that research and discovery is more empowerment. I think the future depends on how we use our knowledge to make the world a better and more sustainable place. That’s a little different than in the 1950s and 1960s when it was all about building an industrial power. Sending a man to the moon. Those pursuits had a huge impact on the scientific world, but I think the future pursuit needs to be to solve the grand challenges that we face in society. Most of which are not building the Eiffel tower or creating an atomic bomb or sending a man to the moon… but instead producing enough food to feed a growing population, insuring that we’re doing everything we can as a human race to have a positive impact on climate change and a sustainable source of potable water. All of these questions that are driving scientists now, I hope, I think, are really about building a sustainable future. That’s a good thing.
I think the future depends on how we use our knowledge to make the world a better and more sustainable place.
Does leading a university make you think differently about your own education?[after a long pause] One of the things I really struggle with is the fact that a lot of leading universities, and we’re one of them, are so competitive to get into now. Back in the day, we sort of let everybody in and then later weeded them out. I think one of the fundamental tenants of America, and education in America, is that it’s never too late. In many parts of the world, by the time you’re in the eighth grade they’ve decided for you what direction you’re going to go in. Are you going to be a laborer? Are you going to be a technical worker? Or are you going to be a university student and a professional? That’s not true in America.
A lot of our alumni say this now, they say, “Well, I would never get into NC State now.” My point here is that it’s different now.
For me, my academic journey started when I was a freshman in college. I was a good high school student; I made good grades and my parents celebrated it — they put the report card on the fridge and all of that, but the depth of learning and academic life really didn’t kick in for me until I went to college.
Now, high school students across the entire state have access to Advanced Placement courses. They have a different learning environment, even in rural parts of the state. The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics delivers great distance education courses. It’s just different. And it’s made me think differently about our role at the university; we can and need to help at all levels of education. People see a different future for themselves. So that’s why the projects like you’re working on [working with The Science House and others in the Students Discover Project], that’s why all of these kinds of things are hugely important because we have an obligation to inspire. I’ve come to think about that differently because of my administrative roles. When I was a scientist and a member of the graduate faculty and teaching, I was focused. I taught plant physiology, plant growth and development. I trained and educated graduate students, worked on getting my next proposal funded. But now I see, because of the role I play, a bigger picture and a bigger obligation.
…[W]e have an obligation to inspire.
My parents deserve a lot of credit. My parents were very influential for me, and they still are, but these things happen in your life and they change everything. It’s really hard to underestimate what the impact of my high school job at the greenhouse was on everything. I mean, I think if I hadn’t done that, I would have gone pre-med or pre-law, because that’s all I knew. My wife’s dad was a lawyer and I went to the doctor. And my parents were teachers… and I didn’t want to be a high school teacher.
I was very fortunate because my dad thought my hair was too long and told his friend to give me a job because he thought I would cut my hair. He gave me a job, and I didn’t cut my hair… but it set me on a path to where I am now.