In the hottest, driest and lowest point in North America, Jacquelyn S. Fetrow found peace.
Fetrow, Richmond’s new provost, had just completed a long, stressful merger for the company she co-founded. Looking to unplug her brain, Fetrow turned to an unlikely source: an RV.
Fetrow and her husband put their unnecessary belongings into storage, gathered their two dogs and her guitar and road-tripped across the United States for six months.
Their first stop was Death Valley, California. With no readily available water sources or access to technology, they camped for a week in one of the most inhospitable locations in the Western Hemisphere.
In Death Valley, Fetrow was able to calm her mind. “In our high stress lives that we all have…we need to be able to just sit and be for a while,” Fetrow said. “It’s actually a skill I think we all need to relearn.”
Fetrow was announced as Richmond’s new provost in April after a decade at Wake Forest University, and she said she wanted Richmond to be as vibrant as Death Valley was barren.
The majority of students probably do not know what role a provost serves for a university, but it is an integral position.
“Really, what I am is the chief academic officer," Fetrow said. "I report to the president, and my job is to lead the academics of the institution." As provost, Fetrow’s strategy is to surround herself with capable people and creative ideas.
“One of the things I think I can do best is to really listen, to find the really interesting opportunities where they come up…to support faculty and staff creativity,” Fetrow said.
Fetrow tried to embody those words at Wake Forest through creating the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Center, which is designed to help students engage with faculty. She also helped plan Wake Will, a major fundraising campaign.
“She had a great reputation for being involved with meetings with student leaders. She is dedicated to working with students,” said Steve Bisese, vice president for student development and a member of the provost search committee.
Fetrow has already attended numerous student-centered events. She spoke at the student government and board of trustee workshop in August, introduced herself to new students during orientation sessions and has met with student leaders from the Westhampton, Richmond, Jepson, business and law schools.
“I have been very impressed so far with Provost Fetrow’s interest in finding out the students’ perspective," said Joseph Boehman, dean of Richmond College. "In the few interactions I have had with her thus far, she has asked me for the best ways to really get at the students’ concerns and desire for the educational experience,”
Fetrow, who turns 54 this Saturday, was born in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg. Inquisitive from a young age, she always asked questions in the classroom and stargazed with her telescope in the backyard. On more than one occasion, she tried to blow something up using her chemistry set.
“I always just wanted to see what would happen when I put things together,” she said.
Fetrow’s natural curiosity extends into the kitchen. Her stress-relieving passion is cooking, whether it be pasta, baking bread or even homemade ice cream. “I love throwing things together,” Fetrow said. She described her love of cooking the same way she described mixing chemicals to create explosions.
Her fascination with experimenting is a fitting trait for the provost of a liberal arts institution. Fetrow said she believed a diverse foundation of classes was imperative to becoming a well-rounded person.
“You are developing your skills in effective communication, being able to evaluate and analyze a problem and to think critically and logically through an issue,” Fetrow said. “We need more people in our world and our democracy who have that type of education.”
Of the things you’d expect to find in the provost’s office, champagne probably isn’t high on the list. Yet proudly lining Fetrow’s shelves are empty bottles with pictures of students and their signatures. When Fetrow’s masters students completed their thesis papers at Wake Forest, she would bring a bottle of champagne to celebrate, and pop the cork right in the laboratory. Each bottle represented the culminating moment of years of painstaking research. Fetrow said she would like to teach a first-year seminar here at Richmond, but the decision had not yet been finalized.
Next to her traditional desk is a treadmill workstation that she uses about three times per week as part of her belief that people sit too much during the day. Walking is a theme for Fetrow, who walks her rescue dog, a border collie mix named Jetta, for 45 minutes every day.
After graduating from Albright College with a major in biochemistry, Fetrow earned her Ph.D. at Penn State's Hershey campus. After postdoctoral research at University of Rochester and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Fetrow earned a faculty position at University at Albany, State University of New York. There she earned the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, a statewide award, as well as the President’s Award.
Fetrow took a sabbatical from SUNY Albany to pursue an opportunity at the Scripps Research Institute. Building on her work there, she co-founded a company, Geneformatics, with the goal of more accurately analyzing the human genome project.
Fetrow served as chief scientific officer for Geneformatics, charged with leading the scientific operations of the company, a role she said she viewed as similar to her job as provost at Richmond.
The company merged with Cengent in 2003, another biotech company, which inspired her epic road trip. The cross-country tour included stops at numerous national parks, the highlights of which were the Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah and coming face-to-face with a Buffalo in North Dakota.
After the RV adventure came to an end, Fetrow accepted a position as endowed chair of computational biophysics at Wake Forest, and eventually was promoted to dean of Wake Forest College. Shortly after being appointed for a second term as dean, Fetrow accepted the position of provost at University of Richmond.
“I have to say, the first time, I said no,” Fetrow said. She changed her mind after deciding Richmond was a good fit for her in many regards. “In terms of my passion for education, my passion for students interacting with faculty, inside and outside of the classroom, for kinds of experiential learning...it was a really good fit for me here,” Fetrow said.
In terms of Fetrow’s longer-term goals, she said she was focused on continuing the momentum President Ayers had brought to the university.
“Imagine that [momentum] like a wave. A presidential transition can put a wall up in front of that wave, or it can cause the wave to reflect in a different direction, or cause the wave to go backwards,” Fetrow said. “We need to make sure our wave keeps going.”
“The most important thing is we need to find is somebody who appreciates us for what we are and the distinctiveness we bring,” Fetrow said.
Despite her four patents, co-founding of a biotech company and ability to find peace in the desert, Fetrow feels at home in the classroom. “I’m a teacher at heart,” Fetrow said.
Contact reporter Danny Heifetz at email@example.com