Episode 9: Support Networks in times of need

Who do you lean on when you’re in challenging times?


Who do you lean on when you’re in challenging times?

In challenging times, I am very fortunate that I have always been able to lean on my family and good friends. I’ve also found incredible support from mentors. I’d love to talk about Joe Coil, who was my dissertation advisor when I was at Johns Hopkins doing my PhD. I believe that he has written me a letter of recommendation for every job that I have had, and I have been out of his lab more than 30 years.

A mentor is someone who cares about you and your career and your entire trajectory. Not simply the four and a half years that I was in his laboratory doing my dissertation, but for 30 years after that. That kind of mentorship you can’t pay for, and what someone told me is the difference with mentorship is there’s an element of love. Everything else is just advice.

Episode 8: Being “First”

President Berger-Sweeney shares what its like to be a “first” and the challenges that come with entering spaces that may have preconcieved notions attached.


Share with us your thoughts on being the first woman and the first Black president of Trinity College – Hartford.

I am the first Black, first female, first neuroscientist president of Trinity College. And at the same time, when you get into many of these positions, you realize it’s also challenging to be the first. And there is added pressure of being the first. And so when you come into a position and you are the first, people’s perceptions of you have to catch up because they have prejudged and preformed what a president looks like, what a president sounds like, how a president acts, and you are different from what their previous perceptions of that role has been.

So you’re both dealing with trying to, for example, move an institution forward, but recognizing that you are being perceived and judged differently than someone previously in the position because you look different and you sound a little bit different, and that you have to navigate that at the same time you’re trying to move the institution forward. And I have found that you have to try and do that in a manner that doesn’t completely put off or offend other people. And so think about when you’re first, doing it in a way that brings more people along than pushes them away.

Episode 7: Insights into diversity, equity, and inclusion

President Berger-Sweeney shares her insights into why DEI is imperative in STEM and academia.


How do diversity, equity, and inclusion fit into STEM?

Talent exists across all of the zip codes in the United States of America. Opportunity does not. I was lucky enough that I had talent and I had opportunity together. That’s, I think, what helped form the person I am and lead to some of the successes that I’ve had in my career. And so understanding that has helped me understand the absolute importance of equity in every equation.

So I love sometimes to use sports analogies. And I say if you are a coach and you want to find the best baseball pitcher, do you choose to only look in the state of Massachusetts? Or do you recognize that if you broaden your search, you’re more than likely to find the best pitcher? Not the best pitcher in the state of Massachusetts, but in fact the best pitcher. And we all know that we need talent in science. We need that as a… And the American society needs more talented scientists. I think we understand that.

So where are you going to find the best scientists, in a small restricted pool or if you widen your net to try and capture great talent? And unfortunately, if you eliminate opportunity, you are narrowing your net and not allowing the broadest number of people to become and even see if they’re interested and love science.

Episode 6: Recognizing Imposter Syndrome

President Berger-Sweeney shares her thoughts on “imposter syndrome”.


What would you say to someone dealing with imposter syndrome?

I would say that you have to give yourself time to develop. If you think the person that you are seeing here at the age of 63 is the same person who was in high school at 15, you’d be wrong. So first of all, people have to give themselves an opportunity to develop and grow with time. And you can’t think that you’re going to have all the lessons in life when you’re 25 or even 35. It’s something that you develop with time and by being open enough to listen to advice, mentoring from other people.

So one thing that I would say to anyone, whether they want to be in my position or another position, is be open to mentorship. And remember, you can be mentored and learn from people who are more senior than you, which is what people think of most often as mentoring. But you can learn and be mentored by people who are younger than you too. And what you have to do is make sure that you are allowing yourself to be open enough to be guided by some of the good advice that you get, but also at times determine when you need to filter out advice that isn’t quite right for you. And that is not something that you develop overnight. It really is kind of a lifelong learning. And if you are willing to learn across your entire lifetime, you are much more likely, I think to be successful.



Episode 5: Common Misconceptions about STEM

President Berger-Sweeney shares some insight on the common misconceptions about STEM.


What is a common misconception about STEM?

I think a lot of people think scientists are hyper narrow. And there’s this balance between really having a focus and understanding your subspecialty within the science and understanding that modern day science cannot be cured or addressed, I should say, by any particular technique or skill. That you need to approach significant, big, audacious problems from multiple perspectives. And I think that that’s what more and more people are understanding about science and that it’s really quite broad and not really super hyper specialized and narrow.



Episode 4: President Berger-Sweeney on Great University Leadership

What kinds of skills does a University President need to do her job? In this video, Joanne Berger-Sweeney speaks to why listening is a skill that is central to successfully leading a university.


What kind of skills do you need to do your job? 

I think you have to be ready to listen sometimes even more than to speak so if you always have to be right this is probably not the right profession for you someone gave me an analogy of what a good leader is and she shared with me that a good leader is like a willow like a willow tree that if a storm comes has some flexibility and can move with the storm but is rooted deeply so you don’t get completely blown over in the storm but if you think about being a leader as being able to be influenced and moved but not your core Roots being torn out you probably have reached kind of a good balance in your leadership so I would say that someone has to determine if they have the right characteristics to be a willow but what I think people need to do most to be in the kind of position I have or to be a leader is to get to know yourself what you like and what you need and see if that fits with what’s needed in a particular kind of position because you shouldn’t have to alter who you are too much to take any particular job because you’re less likely to be good at it and you’re less likely to enjoy it

Episode 3: President Berger-Sweeney shares her journey to academic leadership and the opportunity gap.

In Episode 3 of our Unscripted Reels w/ President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, she shares her journey to Trinity College and insights about the opportunity gap in academia and industry.


Tell us about your journey from STEM student to university leadership.

There were a couple of pivotal points I think in my career. I went to college, I went to undergraduate thinking that I was going to be a physician. I was going to be that kind of doctor. And I tell people that somewhere around my junior year in college, after I’d taken a couple of courses, I realized I loved the science aspect of it, but maybe I’m more interested in something that’s not literally being a physician and dealing one on one with an individual. Now, the first thing I thought is maybe I’m interested in public health epidemiology, the study of broad populations and health statistics. I said, maybe that’s what I like. Then I would take other courses about chemistry and organics in waters and how some of those chemicals affected the human body. And then I started to realize I’m interested in the brain and the chemicals and how those two interact.

And so that kind of led me to graduate school. And someone gave me advice that whatever you do, you want to be the heart and core of that industry. So I think one of the themes that you will see in my career is that I’ve always tried to make sure to position myself to be at the heart and core of the mission of wherever I’m working. And I saw that and was able to do that as a faculty member at a primarily undergraduate institution. And I think I’ve continued that as an administrator. It’s really being the core heart and soul of the mission of the institution and a mission that you’re passionate about.

What is a common misconception about your job or field?

When I was hired as president of Trinity College, the board of trustees shared with me that they thought one of the things that Trinity needed to do was continue to attract a better quality, stronger, high performing students. I think to get great students, we are going to need more money for financial aid because talent exists across the zip code, but opportunity does not. And when we broadened the pool and looked for talent that wasn’t restricted by whether they could afford to go to Trinity College or not, we broadened the socioeconomic spectrum of students at Trinity.

We also broadened the racial and ethnic diversity of the students. And that’s a little bit about socioeconomics in the United States of America. The misperception is how many people think that I came to Trinity to diversify it, to make it more racially and ethnically diverse. I came to improve the quality and the percentage of high performing, highly engaged students, not to come in to change the racial and ethnic diversity of the student body. But if you ask a lot of people, they will say that was what I was doing. And somehow there is this misperception in the United States that if you’re looking for talent and quality, you can’t do that and increase racial and ethnic diversity. That is, I think, one of the hugest misperceptions in the United States of America. They go hand in hand. They are inextricably linked.

Episode 2: Dealing with Disappointment through Support and Mentorship

In Episode 2 of our Unscripted Reels w/ President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, she shares her insights on points where she could have “circled back” while also expounding on the value of mentorship.


Share a time when you felt disappointed in yourself.

I know that there’s been one or more time that I haven’t circled back and shed a bit more nuance with someone that I was interacting or dealing with. I thought, “I should have gone back and made it really clear that I heard what the other person was saying, and that it may have influenced me more than I let on in that initial conversation.” I haven’t always circled back and said to that person, “After thinking about it for a while, I realized maybe I even think I still made the right decision, but I heard what you said, and it might influence the way I do something in the future.

I’m not always perfect about that, and I think one of the reasons is I am very much a doer. I am focused on the future and moving forward. The good part is that I’m always looking forward, and that means that I can even release when I’ve done something wrong because I’m focused on the future. But sometimes maybe I could have done even better in bringing others along in my rationale and decision-making.

Who do you lean on for when you’re in challenging times?

In challenging times, I am very fortunate that I have always been able to lean on my family and good friends. I’ve also found incredible support from mentors. I love to talk about Joe Coyle, who was my dissertation advisor when I was at Johns Hopkins doing my PhD. I believe that he has written me a letter of recommendation for every job that I have had, and I have been out of his lab more than 30 years.

A mentor is someone who cares about you and your career, and your entire trajectory, not simply the four and a half years that I was in his laboratory doing my dissertation, but for 30 years after that, that kind of mentorship you can’t pay for. And what someone told me is the difference with mentorship is there’s an element of love. Everything else is just advice.


Episode 1: Introducing Dr. Joanne Berger-Sweeney

Introducing the President of Trinity College-Hartford, Dr. Joanne Berger-Sweeney! The 22nd President of Trinity College-Hartford is an accomplished neuroscientist, a champion of liberal arts, and a staunch advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Trinity. In this video, Joanne speaks about her journey through STEM and her current role as Trinity’s President.


What do you love most about being President of Trinity College?

One of the things I love about my job is the variety. Different constituent groups, you do something different almost every single day. Because, you’re dealing with a crisis, you’re dealing with something simple and ordinary, you’re going to a student exhibit, you get to walk around and see beautiful art. Other days you’re talking to donors. It’s just such a varied position. The second thing I probably like most about the job is that it’s so mission-focused and mission-driven. You know, our mission here at Trinity College is to provide an excellent liberal arts education to students who are going to go out and transform the world. I mean, what’s better than that to wake up to every day?

What was the spark that led you to neuroscience?

I do remember the roots of my interest in the brain and behavior. So, my mother, you know, when I was growing up in the early 1970s, was always sharing with me, “you know your mood probably affects your health. How you’re thinking and feeling psychologically probably affects how you feel and what you do.” And I realize now that’s a bit the essence of brain and behavior and neuroscience. And in the early 1970’s, neuroscience wasn’t even really a field. It was starting to congel and become a field from psychology, from biology, maybe a little bit from chemistry and philosophy. But I would say the two really primary areas were psychology and biology. And my mother was talking about those things in the 70s. So maybe it’s not a surprise that I went as an undergraduate and started as a biology major. And while I was an undergraduate at Wellesley College, a new field was emerging called “psychobiology” which was at that interface between psychology and biology and what most people would refer to now as modern neuroscience.

What was your first positive experience with science in the classroom?

When I was growing up in middle school, we did do things like dissections. And I remember the dissection that we did on frogs. And I was just fascinated by each and every organ in the body and how each played a part to create the entire frog. And other people, you know, in the class were kind of freaking out or, you know, saying, “ugh, just get me away from these live animals.” And I was just holding them up and showing people and, okay, maybe teasing them a little bit but I just was fascinated by, you know, that animal’s body and how it paralleled to different organs and different systems in humans. That was, I just remember very vividly in middle school those dissections and just finding them fascinating. Um, and, you know what another thing I realized that is not a lot of people in my high school loved science and I did. And I think when you really like something, you become better and better at it, so it was a way to engage the cutest guys in the class because I would always help them with their science questions.