August 2017

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Dr. Brian Cockburn officially took up the position of Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology on August 1. A graduate of The UWI with a BSc in Chemistry and Biochemistry and a PhD in Biochemistry, Dr. Cockburn has done considerable research into diabetes and obesity.

He was a senior lecturer and Deputy Dean of Enterprise, Development and Outreach in the Faculty of Science and Agriculture, and Campus Orator since 2013. In this interview with Jeanette Awai, he shares some ideas on his new role.

What does becoming Dean mean to you?

It means an opportunity to build on the work of the previous FST Deans. It means I've been entrusted with leading a powerful force for change. Personally, it means considerable sacrifice and opportunity.

How do you define your role as a Dean and how do you define your leadership style?

I see the Dean as a servant of the Principal and broader university management (of which Deans form a part) in that Deans are entrusted to lead academic units, put university policy into action and run faculties as productively as possible. Often that requires being the keeper or interpreter of regulations and statutes. Always, that means exercising oversight of all quality assurance and quality control mechanisms in relation to the business of the faculty and UWI and our interactions with all stakeholders.

But Deans are also servants of all members of staff. And that means finding ways to help them achieve their goals – maybe by assisting with removing obstacles to productivity where possible, or through finding creative means of resolving conflicts, maybe in ways that might not be immediately appreciated. So I reckon my leadership style involves being a facilitator/coach for the most part.

…You’re trying to help people achieve their goals or helping people collaborate, helping people work out conflicts – pretty much that’s it. I recognise subject matter experts as being just that – experts in their field – and my challenge is to attempt to get them to perform at their best by removing obstacles.

Students have grade anxiety, problems with lecturers, and other challenges. As a facilitator, what is your method for handling student-centered issues?

That is a tremendous challenge. Since access was greatly increased and more young people are seizing the opportunities to further their education, we moved from traditionally solely focusing on A students, to seeing B and C students as legitimate. Course delivery and assessment needed to be modified to address these students. FST has one of the most robust staff-student liaison traditions. All courses have student liaisons, and staff-student liaison meetings are held by all departments, where students are encouraged to bring concerns. The minutes of those meetings are tabled at the Faculty Board and they are taken very seriously. Former FST Dean [Dyer] Narinesingh (before Dean [Indar] Ramnarine), tremendously influenced me in the way he would scrutinise every item that came to the Faculty Board. He showed that quality assurance is important and it’s the Dean’s responsibility to ensure that everything we do here, we do it to the best of our ability.

“In all classes, I aim to nurture independent skeptics.” This is your teaching philosophy. One of the criticisms of our current education system is that this approach has not been encouraged at all. What have been the challenges for you?

There's a preference for notes. The more 'complete' (as in what covers the examination paper ‘completely’) the notes, the better. Our programmes are mainly face to face but in some quarters this is seen as a weakness because it's 'traditional.' I think it's actually a strength. Students who show up to class and are ready to be engaged, find themselves rewarded. Teaching through encouraging a logical progression of thought and enquiry asks much of the student body, but empowers them to answer questions that haven't been asked yet. My major challenge has been in attempting to make this attractive.

How do you feel relinquishing your Public Orator duties?

I enjoyed some of the aspects of being Public Orator. It was quite a challenge, trying to craft a citation that would do honour to the honorary graduand but also serve as some form of inspiration to the graduates. Am I going to miss it? The delivery, yes. Preparing the citations – not so much.

Any advice for the next Public Orator?

Try to enjoy it, have fun and lighten up. I took the role very seriously but as Professor Eudine Barriteau demonstrated at Professor Brian Copeland’s Induction – it’s possible to have your presentation bear the gravitas that’s appropriate, but also make it quite entertaining.

What changes and challenges does your field face now?

The challenges we face in my field are related to the frenetic pace of discoveries and analytic tools available. The number of publications now makes it difficult to stay abreast of your field, even within your narrow specialty. It’s one of the reasons people require more collaboration within biology and sub-disciplines in biology and even outside of biology. The challenge is to break down the barriers that we erect. There’s not enough talking between the departments, we don’t talk about work and science and about issues and challenges in our communities and what role scientists can play in addressing these concerns of the communities; there needs to be more such talk. And really, that’s how you’re going to break down these artificial barriers, because if there’s a research question, you need to employ solutions wherever you find them – engineering, physics, chemistry. You ought not to pigeonhole yourself.

Is there anything else you can tell us that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the same field?

One thing I tell students during academic advising, no one has a monopoly on good advice – speak to lots of people and filter what you hear. Figuring out what to do with your life is one of the most difficult pieces of homework you will ever get. There are no signposts, there is no grade, there’s no one to tell you you’re doing it right. I attempt to tailor the advice I give to whomever is sitting in front of me, and it’s a painstaking process that requires lots of listening. I’m a ferocious listener and I ask a lot of questions. So that’s why I think people should ask one more question. Stay curious. Learn. Learning is fun, I’m still learning.

Jeanette G. Awai is a freelance writer and marketing and communications assistant at The UWI St. Augustine Marketing and Communications Office.