As a student, Victoria Sork conducted her high school honors project at UCLA. Now, she is the first woman to become dean of a UCLA science division, having taken the helm of UCLA's Division of Life Sciences on Sept. 1.
The division comprises five departments — ecology and evolutionary biology; molecular, cell and developmental biology; microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics; physiological science; and psychology — and several interdepartmental programs, including computational and systems biology; molecular biology; molecular, cellular and integrative physiology; neuroscience; and society and genetics.
One of four academic divisions within the UCLA College of Letters and Science, Life Sciences has 172 faculty members who teach 6,400 undergraduates majoring in the division's departments and more than 400 doctoral students.
An environmental biologist, Sork is professor and chair of the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a professor at UCLA's Institute of the Environment. She is a pioneer in the field of landscape genetics, an area that integrates genomics, evolutionary biology and conservation.
As dean, Sork is looking forward to the challenges of a division with such a broad array of scientific disciplines that address such "critically important, socially relevant topics," ranging from the developmental biology of stem cell research to the physiological mechanisms of human movement and the neurological and psychological bases of human behavior.
"The life sciences represent the essential science of the 21st century," Sork said. "The life sciences provide the foundations for understanding biomedical innovations, applied human health problems and environmental problems facing our planet — areas that integrate computational biology, cell biology and physiology, evolutionary biology, genomics and gene regulation, and molecular biology.
"The sequencing of the human genome and the explosion of our computational capacity have created new breakthroughs in the life sciences and are changing how we think about how life works," she said. "Given our strengths in biomedical research, with a world-renowned hospital and a large cadre of bioscience faculty across campus, the life sciences at UCLA should, and will, be part of the signature of excellence of the campus."
What are Sork's plans as dean?
"I want to create a long-term vision accompanied by a development plan that attracts resources to support faculty and students in integral areas of excellence," she said. "I am interested in enhancing and strengthening collaborations between the life sciences and the medical sciences, as well as other units across campus.
"I would like to expand the boundaries and the way we think about life sciences. Of course, our synergies with the biomedical sciences will continue; they are a comparative advantage of the division. In addition, there are fundamental concepts in life sciences that intersect with the environment; we have faculty who can address critical environmental problems, such as climate change and the spread of disease.
"Psychology is an amazing department, one of the best in the country," she said. "Some of the research is more biological, while some of it is on the edge of sociology. This is a wonderful opportunity that allows the life sciences to be at the center of campus. We can look south to the medical school and, through psychology, have a natural affinity to look north to the social sciences — we can be the conduit from north to south."
Strong Commitment to Faculty Diversity
As the first woman to head a UCLA division or school in the sciences, Sork says she feels a deep commitment to increase opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities in the sciences. She considers this goal to be a high priority for the life sciences and the university.
"I want to emphasize my strong commitment to diversity," she said. "We can do better in hiring and retaining excellent women and underrepresented minorities on our faculty. I am very committed to finding creative ways to diversify our faculty recruitment. I've been committed throughout my whole career to promoting diversity; that is a major challenge that we need to address seriously in higher education. I strongly believe that excellence and diversity can go hand in hand.
"Early in my career, when I realized there were not many women in science, I decided that if I got in the door, I had to keep the door open for others. We also need to keep the doors open to underrepresented minorities. They need to know they are wanted here and what a great place this is for their careers to flourish. As dean, I will try to find new and creative ways to ensure that the climate here makes individuals from underrepresented groups want to come to UCLA."
How much will budgetary constraints limit her ability to achieve her goals?
"We have to weather the budget cuts," Sork said. "Whether you have a lot of money or not, you should always invest in your areas of excellence. Our current budget crisis motivates us to identify those areas that will move the division forward. Life sciences here have exceptional, internationally recognized scientific leaders who are doing exciting, cutting-edge research and attracting, collectively, over $50 million annually to support their research. Many of our specializations are ranked in the top 10 nationally. When you look at all the areas of excellence, I am confident that we can put those together and make something that is even better.
"I will focus my initial efforts on a development effort to raise money," she said. "There are opportunities to get people to support UCLA's life sciences. I would like to identify and focus resources on areas of strength where we have opportunities for growth. Finding resources for endowed chairs and graduate fellowships will be a high priority."
A Passion for Research
Even with her full agenda as dean, Sork says she plans continue her own research.
"Research is my passion," she said. "I love connecting evolutionary biology with contemporary social problems, such as climate change and landscape change. Environmental change is jeopardizing the health of natural systems and ultimately the health of this planet. My intention is to continue to go out in the field to sample plants. I love seeing the patterns of molecular genetic data that we find in the lab."
In her research, Sork examines ecological processes in plant populations from both an evolutionary and conservation perspective, asking, for instance, how natural selection acts on genes. She uses a molecular ecology approach; she studies genetics, sequences DNA, analyzes molecules and genetic markers, and applies novel statistical approaches. Her research group studies trees in tropical and temperate ecosystems, with a special focus on oak trees in California.
"As we talk about environmental change, including climate change and landscape alteration, we are starting to disrupt natural processes of gene movement and natural selection," Sork said. "The question is, to what extent are these populations now in jeopardy of surviving because of the disruption to the evolutionary process?
"In my laboratory, we study the history of tree populations by sequencing genes, seeing where they are found and figuring out where the center of origin was, where they moved and how quickly they can move. That gives you an idea of how quickly they will be able to respond to environmental change. We can study how much genetic variation is in a population and test whether there is enough variation so plant populations can respond to a warmer climate. By understanding natural processes of evolution between gene flow and migration and adaptive variation, we can think about how they will do in the future as the landscape changes."
Genes move through pollen and seeds. How far they go and how that can be measured are critical questions for assessing the risks of landscape alteration and climate change, Sork says.
"We have developed new statistical methods, combined with the use of genetic markers, to analyze how much genes move through pollen and seeds," she said. "Some of the tools that we have developed are being applied to, for instance, the impact of seeds being moved by umbrella birds in a threatened tropical forest in Ecuador.
"In a research project in Africa, we show that removing primates as dispersal agents disrupts the natural seedling establishment of tropical trees, which jeopardizes the forest for at least a generation. Landscape fragmentation is affecting how primates move. As a result, the primates are now dispersing plants in different ways from before. We are trying to document how fragmented landscapes affect primates and plant populations."
Sork also conducts ongoing research with colleagues in Mexico. Her research on how genes move on a landscape is federally funded by the National Science Foundation.
Sork, who succeeds Emil Reisler as dean, came to UCLA in 2000 and served as a special assistant to the chancellor for academic initiatives after serving as an American Council for Education fellow-in-residence on campus. Her faculty appointments began in January 2002.
Prior to coming to UCLA, Sork was a professor at the University of Missouri–St Louis, where she founded the International Center for Tropical Ecology. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and earned her bachelor's degree in science with honors from UC Irvine, where she conducted research the entire time she was an undergraduate.
"I always loved biology," Sork said. "I started doing experiments when I was 10 years old. From that point on, I never stopped."
What advice does Sork offer to young students interested in science?
"Get involved in laboratory research and get to know a mentor there," she said. "I became involved in a lab at UCLA when I was a senior in high school and I've never left science."
UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer more than 323 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Four alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.