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A perfect fit

Alice P. Gast, Lehigh's 13th president

It almost seems that Alice Gast was born to university life. Her dad was a biochemist, and as a child, she would sometimes accompany him on weekends to his lab at the University of San Francisco.

"He let me play with pens and paper and chalkboards and things like that," Gast recalls fondly. "I remember seeing the big rooms with rows of benches where they would teach the laboratory courses.

"I distinctly remember him telling me about a new thing they called an electron microscope, and they were excited about the pictures they could take," Gast says. "He had pictures of a cell -- I didn't know what a cell was -- but it was very exciting to actually see inside one, not knowing much about it at that young age."

Over the years, Gast came to know her way around the inside of a cell pretty well, while amassing an impressive curriculum vitae: undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Southern California; doctorate degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University; a career as an award-winning and internationally recognized researcher and teacher at Stanford University; and the position of vice president for research and associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In May, following an intensive national search, Gast was chosen as Lehigh University's 13th president.

Just as the electron microscope revealed the inner workings of cells, taking a closer look beyond Gast's impressive CV reveals a remarkable depth of intellectual, academic, athletic, and personal accomplishments.

The academic community knows Gast as the valedictorian of her graduating class at USC; as a world-renowned scholar and researcher in the field of complex fluids; as a consensus-building administrator; and as the leader of bold new interdisciplinary research programs at both Stanford and MIT.

What most don't know is that she worked as a roustabout on a southern California oil field after her freshman year and grew up changing the spark plugs on her family's 1965 Ford Falcon; that she competed for the legendary Long Beach Comets track team in the long jump and 400 meters in the 1970s; that she has maintained a lifelong interest in constitutional history, and is a fan of jazz and Creole cooking; that she married her college sweetheart, Bradley Askins, and -- with their children, Rebecca, 12, and David, 10 -- the family enjoys sports such as basketball and mountain biking, building robotics projects in the basement, and rating the various flavors of ice cream at The Cup in Campus Square.

These are the elements that make up the world of Alice Petry Gast.

She finally got it right

Gast delivers the convocation address at Packer Memorial Church in August.

On a late August evening, despite the premature touch of autumn in the air outside, The Snake Pit felt like the hottest place on the planet. More than 1,200 members of the Class of 2010 packed venerable Grace Hall, the scene of so many memorable wrestling victories through the decades, to celebrate their "adoption" by the Class of 1960.

It is one of Lehigh's grandest traditions, bringing back the class from 50 years before to formally adopt each incoming undergraduate class. A deafening roar greeted the Marching 97 band as they led a parade of flags around the arena, each flag held proudly by a member of the class it represented. And every single class from 1940 to the present was represented.

On the podium at the front of the hall, Chris Marshall, Lehigh's exuberant alumni director, brought out the "coach's voice" he previously employed for 12 years as Lehigh's swimming coach to whip the crowd into a frenzy. As he introduced Lehigh's new president, Marshall recounted the path that led her to Grace Hall: from USC to Princeton, from Stanford to MIT to Bethlehem.

"After all these years traveling from coast to coast and serving many schools, she finally got it right!" Marshall exclaimed, as the crowd roared approval.

Gast laughed, and rose to offer a warm welcome to the assembled students and alumni. She had been on the job only three weeks, but demonstrated an ability to win the hearts and minds of proud Lehigh loyalists -- by poking fun at a certain college in Easton, Pa., and its leopard mascot. "We're going to show them that a Mountain Hawk can take out a little spotted kitty in no time!" Gast said, sparking a thunderous response rolling down from the rafters.

The path that brought Alice Gast to this place doesn't begin at USC. It goes back to New Orleans, to April 18, 1906 -- the day of the San Francisco Earthquake, and the day her father, Joseph Henry Gast, was born.

Joe Gast grew up in New Orleans, "taking the streetcars and hanging out in the French Quarter, listening to jazz by the back doors of some of the clubs, where kids could get a peek at some of the jazz greats," Gast recalls. "He instilled in me a love of jazz and Creole foods that I learned to cook from my mother and our family recipes."

The son of a letter carrier, Joe became the first member of his family to attend college, going far from home to the University of Michigan. He majored in history, returned to pursue biochemistry, and eventually earned his doctorate degree. He was teaching at Baylor Medical School in Houston, Texas, when Gast was born in May 1958. The family moved to the San Francisco Bay area when she was a year-and-a-half old, and settled in Long Beach, in southern California, in 1968.

Growing up, Alice Gast was interested in history, artifacts, and mankind. In high school, she got to meet Margaret Mead, the famed anthropologist, at a California scholarship event.

She also took up track and field, competing in the long jump and running the 400 meters in Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) meets and invitationals throughout southern California.

By the time she was in high school, Gast's academic interests shifted more to math and science, particularly chemistry and physics. "That's partially why I studied chemical engineering," Gast says. "It seemed like a good way to put together math and science to solve problems."

About that time, Gast attended a Society of Women Engineers function at Long Beach State University, located a few blocks from her house. "That was the influence that moved me to think about studying engineering as opposed to science," she says.

Gast, her husband, Bradley Askins, and son, David, help students move in to residence halls in August.

The final marker that set her firmly on her eventual career path came when Gast's interests in mountain climbing and environmental issues converged. "I became interested in mountain climbing and was climbing with a group from the Sierra Club," she says. "Most of the mountain climbers were engineers, primarily aerospace engineers; we had McDonnell Douglas (the major aeroet this formation of a delta. They're like clay particles then, just stuck together."

Her research has been recognized internationally, and during her 16 years at Stanford, she garnered many of the top awards in her field, including:

• National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award, 1986;

• John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, 1991-92;

• National Academy of Science Award for Initiative in Research, 1992;

• Humboldt Award, 1998;

• Election to the National Academy of Engineering, 2001.

She also was named as a Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002, after she moved to MIT. Earlier this year, she won the American Chemical Society Award in Colloid and Surface Chemistry and was elected to the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In addition to her research, Gast proved to be a caring and inspirational mentor to Stanford's finest graduate students, earning the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher Scholars Award in 1989.

When Stanford prepared to launch a bold new interdisciplinary research initiative, called Bio-X, Gast played a key role in the design process. "I enjoyed bringing together groups of faculty to solve problems together," says Gast of the effort to bring together science, engineering, and medicine into a collaborative set of programs. "I had the pleasure of leading the faculty design team, bringing together really diverse groups -- physicists, chemists, clinicians, biochemists, and engineers -- who were all excited about how they were going to be able to work in a new facility and solve complicated problems together."

The experience proved to be another milestone on her path to becoming a university president. "It was an exciting process working with the architect, trying to make space work for the best interdisciplinary collaborations possible, breaking down walls and barriers, enhancing communications," Gast says. "I spent a lot of time thinking about how to bring people across disciplines together.

"So when MIT called, the timing was right for me and it was an opportunity to go to a great institution that was extremely good at interdisciplinary research. It has a very strong culture of laboratories that crossed department and school boundaries. To become the administrator who could further champion that approach and help new initiatives get started was a real joy and pleasure."

True to core values

Rebecca, 12, Gast, David, 10, and husband Bradley Askins have enjoyed exploring their new campus home.

It was in early 2001 that Bob Brown -- a fellow chemical engineer and provost at MIT -- called Gast in California to ask if she was interested in moving into a high-level administrative role: Associate Provost and Vice President for Research at MIT. Once again, it was a natural fit. It seemed all of her education and experience had led her to this point.

She accepted and moved across country with her family: her husband Brad, a computer scientist specializing in the performance of large-scale databases and computer systems; daughter Rebecca; and son David. The family enjoyed hiking in the White Mountains of neighboring New Hampshire, cheering on the Boston Red Sox, riding bikes, and building contraptions and robotics projects together. Rebecca, literally following in her mother's footsteps, took up running track.

At work, Gast faced a new world of complex problems that required creative solutions. While continuing to conduct world-class research herself, she worked with government and academic groups to improve the visa processes for the best and brightest international students and scholars in an era of grave security concerns. She became an expert on intellectual property and academic freedom, working to balance the sometimes conflicting interests of government, industry, and the university.

And as she did at Stanford with the Bio-X project, she pulled together faculty and project managers to help design and construct -- on an accelerated schedule to meet the needs of a $10 million-a-year Army grant -- the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

"These challenges and this committee work led me to think a lot about higher education and why the U.S. system of higher education is the envy of the world, why we're so attractive to students coming from abroad," Gast reflects. "To think about where we're going as we face challenges at home, with funding for research, for higher education, and for students who don't have the means to go to college."

So when Lehigh embarked on a national search for a new president last fall after Gregory Farrington announced that he would be stepping down at the end of the academic year, Gast was ready to move to the next level.

She credits the search committee, chaired by William Hecht '64, with playing an important role in her decision to come to Lehigh. "I think the interview committee did a tremendous job in representing Lehigh," Gast says. "I was pleased to learn that most of my knowledge of Lehigh wasn't different than the perceptions I heard from committee members. They were very honest, very forthright, and also very collegial. You could clearly see their depth of passion for Lehigh. That clearly came through."

When Gast was introduced as Lehigh's next president at a ceremony that included the symbolic passing of Asa Packer's walking stick from Farrington to her on May 9, James Tanenbaum, chair of the board of trustees, said that her "combination of world-renowned research accomplishments and a passionate commitment to students and teaching makes Alice Gast an ideal fit for Lehigh. She brings an impressive record of achievement and scholarly work to our university that is unparalleled in many ways. She is the kind of leader who will drive Lehigh to a more important place in American higher education."

Gast and her family moved into the President's House in late July, and she officially took office on Aug. 1.

Her initial plans are to observe, listen, and learn as much as she can about Lehigh -- its people, its programs, its culture -- from as many viewpoints as she can. "I will be listening to faculty, staff, students, and alumni over the course of the year and look forward to hearing their thoughts about Lehigh, their plans and ideas for the future, and their own life stories," she says.

Asked about her leadership style, Gast says: "I am team-oriented. I like to collaborate with colleagues in decision-making, getting the viewpoints and input from affected constituents and building consensus for decisions that affect a lot of people. I am decisive, but value the input of others."

Her own experiences as an undergrad at USC, as a grad student at Princeton, and while working at Stanford and MIT have confirmed her view that higher education serves students best when it nurtures and embraces the whole person.

"Lehigh is in a strong position because it has remained close to its core values and principles throughout the years," Gast says. "The university has retained its commitment to balancing broad classical education with specializations that improve our society and the world around us. That is an important core principle."

--Jack Croft

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2006

Posted on Monday, November 06, 2006

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