"We're trying to help create community"

It’s all about building relationships between the associate dean and graduate students across programs

April 17, 2018

School administrators sometimes struggle to connect with their  students. Their leadership work tends to put them in more meetings than classrooms. And most continue their own research or clinical roles, further removing them from the student scene.

This can be especially true in Graduate Studies where students can become isolated in their programs and there are fewer all-student events such as the White Coat Ceremony or Match Day in the M.D. program. Allison Fryer, Ph.D., associate dean for Graduate Studies, OHSU School of Medicine, decided to address that challenge with one-on-one breakfasts or lunches with graduating students.

"This is a chance to congratulate them on what they've done," she said, "to really have a meaningful conversation about their successes, their joys, and also their struggles."

Dr. Allison Fryer and Dr. Courtney Betts A tradition with impact

Since starting the lunches in January 2014, Dr. Fryer has met with more than 130 mostly Ph.D. and some master's degree students. Dr. Fryer also offers students the chance to meet privately. She even arranged to have tea and talk via Skype with a student who had left for a postdoc position immediately after defending her Ph.D. dissertation.

These informal sit-downs are – at their core – a conversation. Dr. Fryer doesn't take notes and emphasizes that any information students share is confidential. While some students are initially daunted by speaking up, most warm up and share candid feedback on the graduate student experience at OHSU.

Dr. Fryer uses their insights to develop or enhance the Graduate Studies programs at OHSU and to share, without compromising confidentiality, with Graduate Council and George Mejicano, M.D., M.S., senior associate dean for education, OHSU School of Medicine.

"This is one of the ways to get data to make informed decisions," said Dr. Fryer.

Some of the initiatives born, or honed, through these conversations include that DAC – dissertation advisory committee – meetings are now held twice a year instead of once, fellowship writing bootcamps have been created, course fluidity between programs has been increased, and a new Career and Professional Development Office established.

Trends in education

One emerging priority is how to develop faculty mentors. As she listens to students, Dr. Fryer is identifying gaps in mentorship at OHSU and what kind of training is needed to develop better mentors. 

"In the day-to-day of faculty life, we forget how young students are, and how much they still need to learn," she said. "How do we best mentor these fabulous young minds to become scientists?"

By scheduling lunch with a few graduating students at a time, she's also learned how often students across programs never get a chance to meet.

"Often lunch with me is the first time students in different programs have met each other," Dr. Fryer said. "We need to bring these students together earlier."

From finding closure to stronger beginnings

Courtney Betts, Ph.D. '18, graduated in March from the Cell and Developmental Biology program, and had her lunch with Dr. Fryer and another student shortly afterward.

"It was valuable," Dr. Betts said. "It felt good to be heard."

She added that while it might've been helpful to have that direct interaction with administration earlier in her program, "it's a good way to end the whole experience, it provides an amount of closure."

Dr. Allison Fryer and Dr. Courtney BettsRecognizing this need, Dr. Fryer started hosting dinners this academic year for incoming graduate students at her home with her husband, David Jacoby, M.D., interim chair and professor of medicine, OHSU School of Medicine, and Jackie Wirz, Ph.D., assistant dean for graduate studies, OHSU School of Medicine. They invite students from different programs, in groups of 12, and scheduling dates based on student availability.

Dr. Fryer is also building relationships with key student groups, such as the Graduate Student Organization and the Alliance for Visible Diversity in Science.

Part of Dr. Fryer's goal is to meet students in an informal setting and be accessible to them throughout their time at OHSU.

"We need to create community and make a lasting connection with students that starts when they walk in the door," she said. "I want them to know I'm their advocate. I'm here to solve problems and to make sure they get a great education. I can't fix problems I don't know about."

Students are also engaging in community-building by spearheading groups like the Alliance for Visible Diversity in Science (AVDS) and Women in Science. Medical students (including M.D./Ph.D. students) are also active in the Women's Leadership Development Program and the Diverse Medical Student Mentorship Program. Additional diversity resources and student groups are listed here.

Top: Dr. Allison Fryer (left) with recent graduate Dr. Courtney Betts.
Bottom: Dr. Allison Fryer with Dr. Courtney Betts, and Betts' son, Henry.