A scientist who means business

Juliet Spencer, PhD

Jan. 26, 2023 – DENTON – While much of humanity spent the COVID lockdown binging in front of a television, Juliet Spencer was improving herself.

In addition to virtually conducting her copious duties as director of TWU's School of the Sciences and as a biology professor, Spencer was a student for the first time in more than 20 years.

But lots of folks took classes. Fun adult classes. Learn that foreign language you always wanted to know. Or work on that backlog of professional continuing education.

No. Think higher.

Spencer studied for an MBA. A Master of Business Administration. And in December, she earned her degree from TWU.

"This was basically my COVID project," Spencer said.

This was not, however, some arbitrarily chosen COVID project.

"One of my babies, my pet projects, is our biotechnology program," Spencer said. "My undergraduate major was biotechnology, so I've always been very interested in applied science. I've always been very interested in what we can use science for, what are the applications. What is the good for mankind? That basically is the definition of biotechnology. So we developed the program to be more geared toward going into industry.

"We really wanted students to have a few business classes so they're not completely unaware of how the real world works. We designed the biotech program so that there's a requirement for three business classes. I said I should probably take those classes to find out what content they learn so that I can reinforce the connections between science and business. Then I realized that, well, if I take those three classes, I'm basically a quarter of the way to the MBA program, so maybe I'll just keep going and do the whole thing. And here I am."

Of course, an MBA is not entry level. You don't go straight from lab to the board room.

"I had never taken any business classes, so they made me take all the leveling classes because I had no background at all in business or finance or accounting," Spencer said. "The way the MBA program is structured is really different than the way we educate people in science. If you get a master's in biology, you take a few classes and then do a deep dive on a research project, so it's a lot of lab work. It is experiential, learning more and more about a single subject. The MBA is really different. It's a slice of every aspect of business. It was fascinating. It's just a really different set up than the way we do it in science. As an educator in higher-ed, I really appreciated the structure of the program and the opportunity to learn a little bit about every aspect. It kind of made me rethink how we deliver our graduate biology education, that there might be a place for a more comprehensive degree. Maybe everybody should get a slice of ecology, microbiology, immunology."

Due to the pandemic's imposition of the virtual classes, Spencer didn't face the awkwardness of being in a classroom among 20-somethings, but she did travel out of her social element and professional comfort zone.

"It was a little bit terrifying," she said. "All of a sudden, I'm the one in the classroom, so I have to do what the professor says. And just about everybody I know is a scientist. So here I am, meeting people from all different areas, not a scientist in a bunch. There were quite a few people from TWU from different places like facilities and things that. I really enjoyed that, because people bring such different perspectives to the table. We talk about diversity, but when you're in a group with people who are coming from such different backgrounds and perspectives, you realize how important that really is. All those different viewpoints to give the project more depth and more perspective and more relevance."

There have been significant side benefits to obtaining her MBA. Just as Spencer was seeking to appreciate the tasks set for her science students, she also got first-hand student's experience at the virtual learning process.

"Every teacher had to figure out how to teach online," Spencer said. "I did the opposite. I started taking classes online. It was really cool because I took classes that summer and then in the fall I had to teach online. I had a really different perspective after having been a student. That was really valuable."

There's another really good reason for Spencer to earn an MBA.

Sit through a few Dean's Executive Council meetings and you'll understand why an academic would benefit from the business acumen an MBA conveys. The skills required of school directors and department chairs of a university school include finance, accounting, human resources, marketing, analytics, administration, management and leadership.

Indeed, Spencer runs a not-so-small small business. She oversees 67 employees, the faculty and staff from the divisions of biology, chemistry and biochemistry, computer sciences, and mathematics. The School of Sciences is housed in the Scientific Research Commons, the Ann Stuart Science Complex and the Multipurpose Classroom Building, which encompass more than 200,000-square feet of facilities.

"It basically is a small business," she said. "You have budgeting, leadership and vision, strategic planning, and aligning your resources with your goals and your targets. There's so many aspects that are basically business. I really think there should be some kind of academic manager academy or something like that where you get a little snippet of all of these things. All of that stuff, before doing this MBA, was trial by fire, trial and error, figuring out what works and what doesn't. After doing the MBA, I feel like I've been in the dark, just feeling my way around, not knowing what I'm doing. Nobody ever suggested reading about organizational behavior, about how businesses are structured. I get it now. It was just really eye opening, and I think a lot of people would be really surprised at how useful and interesting it is."

Despite her pride at completing the course, Spencer chose not to walk at graduation in December. She was much more interested in the world of possibilities previously unconsidered.

"I care more about the accomplishment," she said. "Your bachelor's degree is sort of ticket to the real world. The PhD was my passion. This was more practical. I don't know yet how it's going to affect my career path. I think I actually have more questions than when I started. What can I really do with this MBA? I was thinking I wanted to be a dean and then a provost, and an MBA will set me apart from other candidates. But I started thinking, I've been in academics for a really long time, and maybe, with an MBA, the future for me is outside academics. I worked in biotech for a few years before I started my academic career. I hoped that I would be part of launching the biotech program here. But I think I still have a dream at some point that I might have a brilliant idea and found my own biotech company or something like that.

"I might not know what all the options are, but I'm excited to find out."

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Page last updated 9:32 AM, January 26, 2023