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Get to know William Karpus, new Graduate School dean

June 2, 2015 By Kelly April Tyrrell

In August, William Karpus will become the Graduate School’s dean — the first since a restructuring last year to enhance UW–Madison’s role in graduate education and research. He is tasked with serving more than 9,000 students across 150 departments. He will also work closely with Marsha Mailick, vice chancellor for research and graduate education, in developing a distinct Graduate School.

Photo: William Karpus

William Karpus

A professor of pathology and microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and associate dean of student affairs in The Graduate School at Northwestern, Karpus brings with him a wealth of experiences in the sciences and in graduate education and training.

He recently took the time to share more about himself and what to expect from him as dean.

Can you talk more about the research that got you started on your academic career?

I am in pathology and my research interest ever since graduate school has been the pathogenesis of multiple sclerosis (an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system). My lab at Northwestern has been looking at it since 1994, and I’ve been looking at it since 1991, as a postdoc.

You’re not a medical doctor, but you’ve been involved in some clinical work?

I’ve been involved in clinical service in the hospital, using flow cytometry (a technique to study cells) to diagnose lymphomas and leukemias, to help the hematopathologists make the diagnosis. That’s been a rewarding part of my scholarly pursuits in the sense that, not only am I involved in a team that helps patients, it has also spawned some research ideas for my lab in terms of how we might approach treating lymphomas.

I also direct the research core facility for flow cytometry for the cancer center and the entire university. We serve over 150 investigators at the institution.

Given your background as a researcher, what made you interested in becoming dean of the Graduate School at UW–Madison?

All along, I have been involved in the education of graduate students, medical students, and training postdoctoral fellows. It’s really where I developed my interest in graduate student training and how to best serve them to ensure they’re successful in their next career step.

I had been a graduate program director for four years and wanted to translate some ideas in one program to multiple programs, to make strides toward institutional change that were transformative for the benefit of all students and not just a single program.

I saw the role at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a tremendous opportunity. I’ve been at Northwestern University for 24 years, so UW–Madison will only be the second place I’ve been my entire professional career. The change presents a whole new set of challenges that are exciting to me.

You are currently associate dean of The Graduate School at Northwestern. What are some of the transformative ideas you’ve brought to the institution in that role, particularly in light of the shrinking number of opportunities for Ph.D.s on academic career tracks?

We have to develop new ways of providing skills to Ph.D. students so they can be competitive for a broad possibility of career paths. Problem solving and critical thinking are always going to be a part of the Ph.D. experience and they are highly desired in a number of fields, but we can help them develop, for instance, intellectual property skills, skills in compliance and regulation, and an acumen for basic business so they can develop those career paths.

One of the things launching this fall (at Northwestern) is a collaboration between The Graduate School and the Medill School of Journalism, with two course offerings per year to give students insight into skill sets for publishing as a career landing point, to offer science writing courses, and to help teach them how to communicate science in a way a lay public can understand.

We also have a collaboration between The Graduate School and the Kellogg School of Management, which is an intensive eight-week program for 50 science and engineering Ph.D. students (once a week for eight weeks) to give them the vocabulary of business and some initial experience, so they can take those ideas to the lab as well as use it to launch their next career move. A number of employers have asked students about this opportunity during job interviews.

Will you be able to bring your research program with you to UW–Madison?

I think the job of the dean is demanding; it will be a full-time job and as much as I would like to believe I could find time for a competitive research program, I don’t think there will be the necessary time. I am looking to transfer my grant to Wisconsin, to finish that project out, and I am more than happy to be involved as a collaborator and continue to participate as a review committee chairman with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. I am very interested in the research that (UW-Madison’s) programs are doing and I will want to make immediate connections with partner schools, faculty, students and staff. The ability to recruit and retain top graduate students is important to maintain the pace of discovery. The recruitment of top graduate students also impacts the recruitment and retention of top faculty. I’d like to innovate in these areas, to help drive forward the already excellent research and climate of the institution.

What are you looking forward to most when you arrive?

I’m looking forward to meeting the outstanding faculty and students and learning about their needs and how we can improve processes that led to UW–Madison becoming a national leader in graduate education. How can we best serve our students? My intention is to really hit the pavement when I get there to listen and learn. I want to see how we can bring students and faculty together to innovate and make graduate training and career outcomes better than it already is. We can always advance.

I’m also looking forward to living in Madison. A number of years ago I visited the city with a friend from graduate school who went to UW–Madison as an undergrad. I remember games at Camp Randall, spending time on the Terrace. I also remember the (Dane County) Farmers Market and the sense of community, living around two big lakes and how that plays into the environment of the city and university, and how they are woven together.

When you’re not busy working, what do you like to do?

One of my biggest hobbies is fly fishing. I enjoy the outdoors. I enjoy community life. My wife is a chef and owns her own biscotti-baking business. We like the food scene.