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UNLV’s New Research Champion
Mary Croughan, UNLV’s new vice president for research and economic development, knows firsthand the difference having a champion in one’s corner can make. Without such a champion her freshman year at the University of California, Davis, she may have given up on science entirely.
Croughan recalls the day she and her fellow students in Chemistry 1A received their midterms back. She had studied hard and was dismayed to find a barely passing score of 68 emblazoned on the front page. She pored over the exam to see where she’d gone wrong, only to discover that it was the graders who had made a mistake. Points she’d earned on one of the pages hadn’t been accounted for in her total. She had earned an 88.
Eager to rectify the situation and salvage her grade, Croughan headed to her professor’s office hours.
“When I explained the situation, my professor said, ‘I can’t stand it when premeds come in here gunning for points,’” Croughan recalled. “He then went on to add, ‘Girls shouldn’t be in chemistry anyway.’”
For the first time, Croughan said, she understood what people meant by the term “fire in the belly.” She considered just riding her bike home and feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she left the professor’s office and went to see the dean. She explained what happened and found a champion. The dean took immediate action, proposing disciplinary options for the professor and ensuring Croughan was engaged in the process to address the situation.
When all was said and done, the professor—also the dean’s research and department colleague—delivered a personal written apology to Croughan and made a public statement to the class, apologizing for his treatment of the “girls.” The event was documented in the professor’s personnel file as well.
“I didn’t understand until decades later how much integrity that dean truly had, that he listened to a student, took action, and did what I’d asked,” Croughan said. “The difficulty that the decision likely caused in his professional life told me so much about the importance of students being heard; the importance of immediate corrective action; and that there are times when standing up to injustices can come at a personal cost, yet it’s critical that we do so.
“I could have just as easily dropped out of science at that point,” she added. “It was that dean advocating on my behalf that made such a huge difference in my life, and I’ve felt compelled to pay it forward ever since.”
Before joining UNLV in July, Croughan spent 30 years in the University of California (UC) system. There, as a faculty member conducting research on infertility and primary care as well as an administrator overseeing statewide and intramural grant programs, she’s been listening.
When, in the late 1990s, she noticed a good portion of female assistant and associate professors leaving the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), she and several colleagues took it upon themselves to conduct a series of interviews and a climate survey to find out why.
They discovered a key ingredient to keeping faculty: mentorship. And one of the key shortfalls at UCSF at the time was that no formal mentorship programs existed for faculty. Croughan and her colleagues remedied that, recommending structured mentoring programs as well as other resources to address additional issues faculty had identified.
“About two-thirds of the programs we recommended, and that were implemented, were programs we did not know we needed before asking,” Croughan said. “But because we asked and then addressed the faculty’s needs, retention significantly improved, faculty had greater job satisfaction and opportunity, and morale increased.”
Croughan is eager to see these same benefits take hold at UNLV through the Division of Research and Economic Development’s new Faculty Research Mentor Program under development by Liam Frink, the UNLV Office of Undergraduate Research’s executive director, as well as other programs and resources she plans to develop.
It seems inevitable that Croughan would so heartily adopt a servant-leadership style. With a mother who worked full time as a microbiologist and public health lab director and a father who was a mechanical engineer and Presbyterian minister, the influence of social justice and service was present in her life from the start. Both of her parents worked long hours, were active in community service, and raised six children together.
Although born in Kansas, where her father’s first church was, Croughan and her family returned to California when she was two. With the exception of college and graduate school, Croughan lived in Novato, California, until she made the move to Southern Nevada this summer.
“People who’ve known me my whole life said, ‘I can’t imagine you moving to a place where you don’t know virtually every single person,’” Croughan said.
Yet it’s that very thing that made the role at UNLV so appealing. “I’m a networker and connector, and I like knowing people in my daily life,” she said. “A simple trip to my old grocery store took 30 minutes because I was always running into friends and talking with the staff and clerks there, whom I knew by name. I look forward to making those kinds of personal connections throughout Las Vegas.”
For Croughan, the work of building personal connections began in childhood and set her on course for the type of researcher she would become.
“I did a huge amount of babysitting when I was growing up—which included, at the age of 14, caring for four children at night and on weekends,” Croughan said. “The youngest child in the family had liver cancer. I cared for her from the time she was born until the time she passed away at five years old. I look back on what it meant to be 14 years old taking care of a terminally ill child, and I think that had a strong influence on me with respect to children’s health.”
At 16, Croughan landed a summer internship with the Marin County Coroner’s Office, where she went on death scene investigations and assisted in autopsies. This sparked her interest in epidemiology: the study of why people die, what they die from, and what people can do to prevent it.
The internship also sparked her interest in research. Two days in a row with no deaths in the area found the curious Croughan sifting through death record books from the 1800s. She taped a bunch of papers together to build a grid—a pre-Computer Age sort of Excel spreadsheet—breaking down the county’s deaths by age, sex, and cause of death. She then wrote a report on her findings.
By the time her senior year of high school rolled around, Croughan was writing term papers about sudden infant death syndrome. Her passion for studying epidemiology, fertility, labor, delivery, and early childhood had solidified. She pursued a B.S. in community health at the University of California, Davis, and went on to get her Ph.D. in epidemiology from The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health right after.
During most days of Croughan’s research career, you would’ve found her on the UCSF campus. The same held true for many of those nights. For 15 years, whenever Croughan was writing grants, she slept on a coat or—when she could no longer deny that she spent so much time on campus—a sleeping pad she placed on the floor of her office when she needed to catch a wink, tucked under her desk.
“My salary and that of my entire research team came from grants,” Croughan said, “so my days were filled with teaching, meetings, and keeping my research going, and I started working on grants and papers at 6 or 7 in the evening.”
Although grueling, Croughan wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“There is absolutely nothing like the feeling of writing a grant and having an epiphany in the middle of the night,” she said. “UCSF has been in the top five schools in the country for a long time, and some of it just boils down to grantsmanship. That’s why mentoring in this area is so important. It works. You can be the best scientist or researcher in the world, but if you don’t know how to write a grant and sell it, your research may never be funded.”
When Croughan took on her first full-time administrative role, executive director of the Research Grants Program Office at UC’s Office of the President, she got rid of the sleeping pad.
Naturally, the decision to leave that item behind was easier than leaving her research.
Croughan had been involved in some type of service work since she was 12 years old: student representative on her school district’s affirmative action committee from age 12 to 16; student council member from junior high through high school; member of the Epidemiology Student Council at Johns Hopkins; and a member of dozens of UCSF and UC committees, addressing matters of education, curriculum, parental leave, gender equity issues, diversity and engagement, and campus climate. Still, she didn’t know if she’d feel at peace stepping back from her research to step full-time into administration and policy work.
But, while chairing UC’s systemwide committee on academic personnel, she was approached to run for the vice chair and chair of the academic senate for the whole UC system.
“I thought this was probably the best opportunity to see if I liked policy and administrative work,” she said.
Croughan accepted the nomination, was elected, and began serving full time in the UC President’s Office. Once again, she found herself in a “huge job,” and though it was different from her research role, she enjoyed it just as much—mainly because of its “builder” component.
“I’m the fifth out of six kids, so I always needed to be fairly independent, and if I wanted something, I needed to create it,” she said. “For some reason, my research always required that I build something to answer my question. For instance, I was recruited to UCSF to build a practice-based research network, and I recruited more than 600 community-based physicians throughout Northern California and the Central Valley.”
The work of building carried over into her administrative roles, including the executive directorship in UC’s Research Grants Program Office that she left in order to join UNLV.
“I think my biggest success so far as an administrator was creating a spectacular team in the Research Grants Program Office, and it happened in spite of significant cuts to the UC system and a major reorganization,” Croughan said. “My job was to come in and create a team in spite of those circumstances. Within a year, we’d accomplished a great part of that, and now, you’d never know this group of people hadn’t worked together their whole lives.”
To what does she credit this achievement? “We needed a common mission, vision, and values,” she said. “We put directed effort into articulating that and created materials that reflected it. While doing the work is most important, having physical items around us that reiterate our goals reminded us of what we were there to do together. And we created a culture of service and respect for each other, our collaborative work, and our individual accomplishments.”
“This job at UNLV is going to be a blast!”
This was Croughan’s response when asked how she felt about entering her new role, which she said provides her with “the best of both worlds”—that is, research and administration.
Leading any university’s research and economic development efforts is no easy task, but Croughan’s excitement over championing these efforts at UNLV is unwavering. And she will be drawing from the many lessons of her past to inform her efforts here.
“Leadership as a researcher and an administrator is about helping others develop and thinking strategically about what can be done to enhance activities across an institution,” she said. “As a leader, it’s not about my career any longer; it’s about providing the resources and establishing the environment that make it possible for others to be successful.”
Croughan plans to significantly increase the grant funding for the campus so faculty and students can continue to conduct significant research, create new interdisciplinary research teams, continue to build UNLV’s research infrastructure and support, identify the next strategic research areas where UNLV can become a national or international leader, and find private or industry funding for research to replace what’s being cut by the federal government. Ultimately, this will help UNLV better address the region’s greatest challenges.
Achieving these goals will require enhancing something that’s been so integral to her own success: mentorship.
“Faculty mentoring around grant writing and grants management is critical for helping faculty who have either limited experience in those areas or who have found it difficult to compete for funding in this extremely competitive environment we’re in,” she said. “It’s my job to see that UNLV faculty are successful in this current climate.”
But mentorship isn’t strictly for faculty. Croughan will never forget how important mentorship was to her as a student just trying to get her grade corrected.
“Most students no longer go into the academy; they go into industry, government, or nonprofit work,” she said. “We need to provide opportunities for students to gain that kind of research experience while they’re our students. We need to reach out to local companies and industries to see how we can leverage our knowledge base and training capabilities to partner with them and generate internships for UNLV students.”
This means she’ll need to keep her ear to the ground, as she’s done so many times before. “I’ll be talking to students, faculty, and staff to find out if there are any gaps in support where we can develop areas further or devote additional resources to enhance our support,” she said.
Croughan believes that, in the long run, these efforts will transform UNLV into the champion the state of Nevada needs.
“There are so many challenges our state faces—health and education disparities, to name a few—and these issues need to be addressed to really help the people of Nevada,” she said. “I believe our research can do that. I really want our university to be the organization our community points to someday and says, ‘UNLV is the reason my life is better.’”
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