Katherine McCall has served as interim dean of the College of Science since December 2020. Her dozen years as associate dean of the college and career in research and academia were excellent preparation for a challenging position made even more difficult by the pandemic. Despite starting at a turbulent time, McCall’s two years in the position thus far have made a lasting impact on the college.
McCall attended Mount Holyoke College, one of the first women’s colleges in the country, as a student of mathematics and physics before earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her dissertation research subject was theoretical condensed matter physics, with particular interest in elasticity of and fluid flow through inhomogeneous materials.
McCall continued to pursue research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and eventually transitioned to a scientific staff position. After four years with Los Alamos, McCall was recruited to teach part-time at New Mexico State University on a temporary basis. Supervisors were supportive and a longtime mentor encouraged her to accept the offer:
“You can’t know you don’t like teaching until you’ve tried it,” her mentor said.
“I decided to put my doubts to rest,” McCall said. “Surprise! I loved teaching, started searching for an academic position, and came to Reno the following year.”
"We will continue to make strides toward ensuring the College provides space and place for any person interested in the fields it represents."
McCall started teaching at the University of Nevada, Reno in 1996 and served as the physics department chair from 2004 to 2007. Shortly after, she moved into administration as an associate dean. Her research interests and administrative experience positioned her well to work with the College’s earth science departments, and during her tenure as associate dean, she also temporarily served as acting chair of the Department of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering and acting Director of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering.
When the former dean of the College, Jeffrey Thompson, was named Executive Vice President and Provost, McCall was the clear choice for the vacant interim dean position. Taking over the College at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic proved challenging, but McCall gained perspective in the new position.
“Being dean of a very large college often feels overwhelming; however, the people make the place and I’ve been fortunate,” McCall said. “The College department chairs and program directors are talented and dedicated; the faculty are, of course, the absolute best; the students are always inspiring; and the college staff are outstanding.”
Recruiting and retaining professors who value equity in STEM has been a personal priority of the dean’s. McCall named a hallway in the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center in honor of her great aunt, Elizabeth Racao Durfee. Durfee completed her undergraduate degree at a women’s college, like McCall, and then graduated from Cornell University with her master’s degree in physics in 1924, when it was very uncommon for women to do so. McCall describes how her great aunt received support from a professor, without which Durfee would not have returned to graduate school to pursue her passion for physics.
McCall is especially proud of launching the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) program at the University in 2007 and continues to work toward ensuring the College is welcoming to all students. As dean, she has supported the launch of the MARC (Maximizing Access to Research Careers) Nevada Program in collaboration with associate dean Melanie Duckworth, the relaunch of the Golden Scholars first generation student program lead by College advisors who are themselves first-generation students, and the continuation of the College of Science Student Emergency Fund that provides cash to students in need with no set prerequisites.
“My hope in the future is that primary identities are not mutually exclusive,” McCall said. “We are a great college because of the people, and I see evidence of that every day. We will continue to make strides toward ensuring the College provides space and place for any person interested in the fields it represents.”
While McCall is clearly dedicated to the College, her passions extend into the arts, too.
“Participating in the arts has always been integral to my joy,” McCall said. She even took singing lessons on campus at the recommendation of Philip B. Manwell, late professor of organ at the University. McCall recently endowed a scholarship for students majoring in both arts and sciences in Manwell’s memory. “It feels a little selfish,” McCall said, because Manwell wasn’t a scientist. But the opportunity to support students in the College of Science yet again, was too tempting.