Ana María Vázquez-Catoni
Meet Dr. Helene Dillard, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Leader and trailblazer, with a career spanning more than 30 years, Dr. Helene Dillard paves the way for young agricultural scientists.
Dr. Helene R. Dillard is the dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) since January 2014 and the chief administrative officer for the entire college. She oversees 381 faculty, 800 staff members, 7,400 undergraduates and 1,100 graduate students in 15 departments.
As a dean, Dr. Dillard makes sure each department has what they need; for instance, she assists in hiring new faculty and assuring their startup funds. Additionally, she promotes the participation of faculty in leadership programs because she believes in the importance of their professors' professional development. If you thought that was enough, Dr. Dillard is also responsible for the college’s Agricultural Experimental Station and Cooperative Extension.
When Dr. Dillard was in high school, she took a biology course that made her realize she wanted to be a scientist. However, like many general biology courses, it did not delve into very specific topics, leaving her unsure of what kind of scientist she was going to be.
Following her interests in biological sciences, she pursued her undergraduate at UC Berkeley in biology. The curriculum allowed her to select courses based on her interests. Therefore, she took classes in natural resources, forestry, soil sciences, and plant sciences. Eventually, she took a plant pathology course, taught by Dr. Robert Raabe, and she fell in love with it.
(It) was life-changing. He was just so enthusiastic. He brought the curriculum alive. It was like the first time when you realize "Gosh, I just can't get enough of this stuff".
Still unsure if she wanted to become a Plant Pathologist, she went on to pursue her Masters at UC Davis in Soil Science. From this experience, she found out she wanted to become a plant pathologist. She finished her Masters as quickly as she could and continued on to a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology at UC Davis. She worked with Sclerotinia minor on lettuce in the Salinas Valley, one of the largest valleys where most of the vegetables are grown in California.
They had quite a bit of disease problem. They didn't want to rotate. So in those days, the farmers were like "Look, I'm making money on lettuce. I'm just gonna grow lettuce, after lettuce, after lettuce." And I just kept saying: "But, you are just adding more sclerotia to the soil!" (She laughs).
In 1984, she became an assistant faculty member at Cornell University. Once she arrived, her first project was working on tomato anthracnose. At first, she felt a bit unsure because she had not worked on that disease during her Ph.D. Then, she realized her Ph.D. experience at UC Davis prepared her with the knowledge and skills to know what to do to get started: "When you're a Plant Pathologist, you have a lot of tools." Dr. Dillard went on to become a full tenured professor with a 50 percent research and 50 percent extension appointment.
When asked about the challenges involved in being a tenure-track faculty, she expressed:
You tend to worry about stuff and you're always thinking ahead. What I began to realize was, just do what you need to do right now because you can't control the future yet. You know you need to publish, you know you need to teach your courses, you know you need to mentor graduate students. Do that and do it well. Stop worrying about other stuff. I found that once I stopped all the noise, I could just focus and things happen.
Another issue Dr. Dillard did not think about right away was the strategic plan for her lab. In other words, what is it her lab gonna be known for? In her case, she determined research was going to focus on the biology, ecology, and management of fungal pathogens that cause diseases in vegetable crops. Being clear of what she wanted for her lab took away all the uncertainty:
Figure out what your strength is and what impact in plant pathology, or whatever discipline it is, you want to have.
Eventually, she became chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at Cornell University. At this point, she became more involved in administrative positions: "I kind of liked it because it was a way to help others and build a program." Before she left Cornell University after 30 years, she was an associate dean in two colleges (the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Human Ecology) and the director for Cornell Cooperative Extension.
One day, she received a phone call asking if she would be interested in interviewing for the position of the dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. After interviewing and accepting the job offer, she and her husband moved away from the snow and back to the blue skies of California.
Early on in Dr. Dillard's prolific career, women were still not the norm, the field was very male-dominated and growers were not used to women in her field. As more women came, this stigma changed. What has helped her is demonstrating she has the ability and skills to resolve problems:
I see some of the more blatant discrimination against women kind of going away because there's so many of us now. We are really coming in to the workforce in a really big way, especially in places like extension...
She still thinks many of the barriers have to do with children and the expectations of mothers and their involvement in their child's care, as opposed to fathers. However, she has seen progress, coming from the fact that maternity leave did not exist when she became a mother and she had to personally ask the dean for time off:
We are seeing way more women leaders able to do things even with two, three kids. It's not impossible.
You may ask yourself, how has Dr. Dillard worked motherhood into her incredibly busy schedule? Fortunately, she has had a supportive husband who she shares responsibilities with. She also mentioned how other families have adapted themselves to take advantage of commuting using public transportation. This serves as a space for getting work done before arriving to their homes and dedicating time solely to family.
Dr. Dillard believes it is important to highlight minorities in science and agriculture and she has noticed how the lack of exposure has an impact on her undergraduates:
If they don't see anybody that looks like them, then they feel like it's an exclusive group. A lot of young people don't have the sea legs to be the first one. Somebody has to be first.
She is actively trying to convince the younger generation that it is okay if they are the only ones. She has been in that position when she was the only minority in her plant pathology department, for years:
Recognize that you are the trailblazer. You have a lot of weight on your shoulders and everyone is gonna measure you and say "That's what they are all like". You have to take that on and say "Ok, I'm gonna be the trailblazer". I think you just do it and do your job. Just doing that will be a powerful message to others, that it can be done, that it's not impossible.
She also notices many students overwhelmed with not excelling in courses or experiments failing. She believes it is the ability and resilience to recover from setbacks what strengthens you:
It's not the end of the world. I just tell people "be persistent". Some of my best students have been the ones that go through the hardships. It's that ability and that resilience to recover from setbacks.
Learn more about Dr. Hellen Dillard on the UC Davis website and follow her on twitter @UCDavisCAESDean.