Joanna Mott took a globe-spanning road to Sacramento State, where, as the new dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, a straightforward mission greeted her.
As she welcomed a visitor to her Sequoia Hall office recently, laid out on architectural drafting paper were blueprints for the Science Complex. The yet-to-rise building that will take science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at Sac State into a new era drives much of what Mott does and was brought here to do.
“It’s getting closer and closer,” says Mott, whose appointment as dean took effect June 30. “We’re excited. It’s going to be a really nice building.”
Mott knows something about making big physical moves. She comes to Sac State from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., where in 2011 she was hired as head of the biology department. She oversaw the department’s move into a new building, including being “strongly involved” in latter-stage planning.
For five years before that she was chair of the department of life sciences at Texas A&M - Corpus Christi, where her career intersected with that of Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen, who was a professor of English and associate vice president for Academic Affairs. Mott, in an accent that points to her British background, says that, although they were “aware” of each other, their paths didn’t cross often during their yearlong overlap before Nelsen became president of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
A specialist in applied environmental microbiology, Mott did not come to science until her junior year of high school. She originally set forth on a curriculum of English, history, and economics but abandoned that path two weeks later in favor of botany, zoology and chemistry.
“I basically completely switched,” she says. “I’m not a person that when I was 6 decided I wanted to be a doctor. There have been a lot of turns in the road.”
Many of those turns are literal. Mott grew up mostly in England, outside London, but her family moved often, with one of their stops being Nigeria, where they stayed for a few years.
Mott's father was a high-level accountant for the government, and that work provided impetus for the family’s moves. But the science genes in Mott were strong. Her mother had studied to be a doctor but fell in love with Mott’s father, started a family and put her career on hold to raise Joanna and her brother. Her maternal grandmother also was a physician who had done medical missionary work in India.
Mott thinks long and hard when asked what drew her to the natural sciences, almost as if she never considered the question, before concluding her mother was a strong influence.
“My mother I know felt a real loss … not going on in medicine,” Mott says. "So she made up for it by teaching. She passed some of her passion to me in terms of how things work, how living things relate to the physical environment.”
That led her to environmental microbiology, where she concentrated on water-quality issues.
Mott had to hit Sacramento at full stride. She went basically straight from a going-away at James Madison on a Friday night to hopping in the car Saturday morning and setting off for California with her husband, Graham. “Clothes in the back and headed west,” says Mott, adding that she preferred driving to flying, the former providing a cleaner psychological break.
Or maybe the Motts just needed a good, long road trip together. Graham Mott was a chemist before entering industry, eventually working in intellectual property and global business acquisitions. While she was in Texas, he was in Seattle, seeing their daughter through high school.
Later, his company was headquartered in Amsterdam, so while she was at James Madison, he lived in Europe. He then spent a year in Virginia before “retiring,” a word barely applicable considering his continued activity: Graham Mott now works part time with one of James Madison’s vice provosts as a corporate liaison. “We had one year when we were (together) in Virginia,” Joanna Mott says.
Mott wound up in the United States in the first place thanks to one of those turns in the road she mentioned. After earning her undergraduate degree in biological sciences from the University of Aston in Birmingham, England, she wanted to enter a dietetics program that was available only in alternating years, and there was no opening. She had an aunt and uncle in Toronto whom she “had visited once,” so she went there and applied to five universities, hoping essentially to occupy herself for a year while waiting to get into the program she wanted.
Mott entered a freshwater ecology program at the University of Waterloo and met Graham, who was a doctoral student studying chemistry. They then relocated to Texas, where Graham was in post-doctoral studies at Texas A&M. So Joanna completed her Ph.D. in microbiology there because “that’s where we were.” Then it was on to Pennsylvania, where he had gotten a job, before industry took him back to Texas.
“Then,” she says, “it was ‘What can I do in Corpus Christi?’
“(O)ne of the pieces when we went to Virginia was that was the first time it had been a decision that was really mine,” she says.
Sacramento is the second such case. She came here knowing little of the place other than that it’s the state capital and richly diverse.
“I’ve done a lot of meeting and listening to people trying to get the lay of the land,” she says. Sacramento State's diversity and its official designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) were attractions, as was the University’s focus on student success and helping first-generation students. “That’s very close to my heart.”
Now that she’s here, Mott is up to her neck in the Science Complex: weekly construction meetings with many different parties; determining what to move to and from the current science venues of Sequoia and Humboldt halls; and learning the ins and outs of the $91 million facility so she may proclaim its virtues to potential donors as well as to students who will benefit from its state-of-the-art amenities.
“(President Nelsen) has been very strong on messaging that it’s a science building for everyone, and the way it’s set up, that will be the case,” she says, pointing to its unofficial theme, “Science on Display.”
The complex will feature glass walls through which passersby can see into labs as work is conducted, and with faculty all in same building, they will be able to collaborate more easily. Mott says that matters because of the profoundly challenging, interdisciplinary issues modern scientists tackle, such as global warming and pandemic prevention.
“It will really change the science culture on campus,” she says of the complex.
Her next steps will be toward expanding access in the STEM fields.
“I think a lot of it has been done at Sac State,” says Mott, whose presence here is meant to ensure that such progress continues. – Ahmed V. Ortiz