A graduate of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA , Sampson completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. After holding an American Cancer Society postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, she joined Stony Brook University in 1993 as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry, later serving as chair of the Department from 2012-2017.
She previously served as an Associate Dean in the College, and is currently a member of the Biochemistry and Structural Biology Graduate Program as well as of the Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology Graduate Program. She is the Co-Director of a Chemical Biology Training Program funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a founding faculty member in Stony Brook’s Institute for Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery. Her research interests span from unraveling the molecular intricacies of mammalian fertilization to finding new treatments for tuberculosis and cholera.
We sat down with Nicole to learn more about her and her role in shaping the future of the College of Arts and Sciences.
What was your major as an undergraduate, and why did you choose Harvey Mudd College?
I was a chemistry major from the beginning, and attended Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, which is primarily an engineering school. I grew up in Buffalo, NY. Going to southern California seemed like a good idea after the Blizzard of ’77!
You’ve said that you’ve had a lifelong fascination with proteins. From where did this stem? Why did you select your particular area of research?
I had the opportunity to do undergraduate research every summer in college, and at the time, gene cloning and molecular biology methods were just beginning to make it easy to obtain a lot of proteins in the lab. Three-dimensional protein structures were being visualized on the same graphics systems that were used to make the first Star Wars movies. These new technologies were disrupting how we undertook experiments and opened my eyes, quite literally, to what molecules look like in three dimensions – it was, and still is, cool!
Who were some of your mentors?
I’ve had many mentors at each stage of my career, and I’ve been fortunate that they’ve encouraged me to take the most adventurous path in my life. One of the more influential was my postdoc mentor, Professor Jeremy Knowles. Jeremy was an amazing communicator in person and in writing, and he taught me the value of both in communicating my own science. He became Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard when I was a postdoc, so I’ve seen how the skills of running a scientific laboratory can translate into administration. One of Jeremy’s favorite mottos was “Not better, just different.” This motto is important when considering the wide diversity of scholarship in a college like CAS. Coincidentally, a previous Dean of CAS at Stony Brook, James Staros, was also a postdoc with Jeremy Knowles. So there is some interesting symmetry here.
You’ve said that you’ve continued your career at Stony Brook because of the people. What is it about your connections here that make Stony Brook feel like home?
Stony Brook faculty are always willing to answer questions regardless of what department you are from or if you are a student in one of their classes. The intellectual curiosity of the faculty and students and willingness to share make Stony Brook a great place to be.
What’s the biggest change in higher education since you started here at SBU?
Our current society focuses on the instantaneous. A University education is currently being valued based on immediate return on investment, i.e., the earning potential in currently high demand careers, as opposed to valuing education for the knowledge it generates. New knowledge will lead to continued improvement of the human condition in the longer term. It is hard to appreciate that value when you are worried about paying bills as income disparities increase.
What do you feel Stony Brook offers that other schools do not?
We are a young University, and despite the constraints of being a state institution, we have been and can continue to be flexible to do what makes the most sense.
What was your reaction when you learned you were being appointed the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences?
I knew this was an important opportunity, especially in a critical moment for the College, to give back to the institution where I’ve built my career. As a current member of the SBU community, I felt a responsibility to lead the College and to support the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in a 21st century university.
What are you most looking forward to in this new role?
The diversity of research and scholarship I now have an excuse to learn about.
What are your immediate goals for the College?
To find commonalities that the various departments within the College can work on together to elevate their research and scholarship, and to identify fruitful collaborations outside the College that will elevate the whole University.
Tell us a little about your family.
My spouse emigrated to the U. because of me; we met at a science conference. He is also a faculty member at Stony Brook. He is an amazing scientist and, according to our sons, we talk too much at dinner about our research! Nevertheless, my eldest son is a very independent learner and likes to design his own experiments. We’re lucky he didn’t burn the house down. My younger son is very tolerant of these experiments. He is musically talented and plays both the piano and cello.
We understand your eldest son is entering his first year of college this fall. What advice have you given him about choosing a college and/or career?
To study what he is truly interested in, and the rest will follow.
If you were to give advice to a young Nicole Sampson, what would it be?
To always take the more interesting path, even if it is not the well-traveled path.
What message do you want to share with our students?
Explore new directions of inquiry as you work toward your degree. How do you know if you will like something, unless you try?