Dr. Judy Kjelstrom is a pioneer in creating interdisciplinary programs that create well-rounded students who are well-equipped to thrive in today’s rapidly changing world. Kjelstrom, the director emerita of University of California Davis’ Biotechnology Program, now serves as the academic coordinator for the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. For her significant body of work, Kjelstrom was named the 2018 recipient of the James H. Meyer Award for Lifetime Achievement, which is the UC Davis Academic Federation’s highest honor.

Prior to joining UC Davis, Kjelstrom spent 12 years as a hospital clinical laboratory scientist, and brings both academic and industry experience to her work. She said that she wanted to do something impactful on translational medicine; however, that type of doctoral program was unavailable she went to school.

In her work with UC Davis’s Biotechnology Program, Kjelstrom saw her role as the captain of the ship and remains deeply appreciative of the team she led. She credits UC Davis’s visionary and collaborative atmosphere for allowing faculty and students to find ways to begin addressing big problems, such as infectious diseases, cancer and global warning. “This is 21st century science,” she said. “It’s big science and it’s team science.”

This type of team science requires complexity and collaboration between different disciplines; one individual cannot do it all anymore. Kjelstrom believes UC Davis’s work in the area of biotechnology provides a good example of how this collaboration can be accomplished since it encompasses engineering, cell biology, microbiology and business. “The visionaries at UC David said, ‘We need to create a special program that could be layered onto a student’s Ph.D. in which they have that deep and narrow expertise, but we need to add that second layer where they come together and fertilize,” she said.

The university’s Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology Program (DEB) was approved in 1997, but this sea change required significant work to get student and faculty buy-in. In 1999 Kjelstrom joined the DEB, where she worked with 10 students from a variety of disciplines. The DEB has grown exponentially. When Kjelstrom retired, the program had 240 students from 29 different disciplines.

She remembers having difficulty getting the students to sign up for extra work, even though they would receive a paid internship. The faculty also were reluctant to let their students go to do this extra work. Eventually, the faculty realized the benefits of the approach. “Little by little, we had buy-in from the student population and the professors,” Kjelstrom said, adding that an NIH grant helped fund this effort.

Kjelstrom – who serves on the executive board of the Powerhouse Science Center, the advisory committee of the US Davis Health Clinical Laboratory Science Training Program and is an alumni of Leadership California — also built strong relationships with the biotech community. This led to conversations about the quality of UC Davis graduates. The company partners offered feedback that while the students’ technical skills were strong, they didn’t know anything about important areas such as patents, teamwork or collaborative communication. This helped her realize that the program needed to help students learn the wide skill set of social and emotional intelligence as well as leadership. This knowledge helps translate into students being able to take a leadership role in both their professional and personal lives.

UC Davis also empowered students to take leadership during their coursework. “I want to position my students to the point where if they’re (a company) looking for a strong woman leader or a man of color, they’re going to look at our students who come out of the DEB program because they are learning to do that right now,” Kjelstrom said. For example, one group of female students who were concerned about inequities in the workplace decided to form a group called Equity in STEM and Entrepreneurship (ESTEME). The group, which is designed to encourage diversity in biotechnology, brings guest panelists from major companies to talk about topics related to create diverse teams. These students also are responsible for all aspects of planning these events so they learn leadership and fundraising skills.

Kjelstrom encourages higher education institution leaders who want to replicate UC Davis’s success to get to know the stakeholders in their own area and develop partnerships that value the needs of both partners and that put students at the center. “It’s getting out of the ivory tower and getting out among the people,” said Kjelstrom. “Don’t use your Ph.D. title and go people-to-people, but ask them, ‘what is it that we need to be successful on both sides?’”

Bullet Points:

  • Today’s science is extremely complex and specialized. To be successful, you must find ways to break down barriers between faculty from different disciplines and encourage collaboration.
  • Reach out to stakeholders to find out how graduates are doing both in terms of technical skills as well as soft skills such as teamwork, communication and leadership.
  • Encourage students to go the extra mile through specific focused work that will help them stretch and gain knowledge in areas outside of their discipline. In addition, give students the opportunity to take on real leadership roles during their time in school.

Guests Social Media Links: