Getting to know Dr. Ruth Chen

SU's new First Lady has kept busy by getting to know students, faculty and her surroundings since joining the Syracuse community.

“If you stand still, you get run over.”

During Dr. Ruth Chen’s time as a Staff Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, this quote hung over a fellow researcher’s door frame, and it is a motto she takes seriously.

Since joining the Syracuse University campus at the beginning of the snowy season, Chen hasn’t stopped moving. Though she has gone to local staples like Stella’s Diner and Varsity Pizza, Chen fills most of her time trying to find a balance with her roles as spouse to Chancellor Kent Syverud and as a faculty member in teaching and research.

Photo: Courtesy of J.D. Ross
Ruth Chen speaks with Prof. David Molta and students in the iSchool's Center for Convergence and Emerging Network Technologies.

Chen, an environmental toxicologist, will  begin teaching at the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science next fall.  She enjoys teaching and continuing to learn, herself, alongside her students, she said.

“I enjoy teaching because of the interaction and the stimulation from the students; the questions they ask –- not necessarily about class work,” she said.

She trains her students to be able to analyze data, find solutions from the most recent scientific discoveries and understand environmental pollution to protect human health.

“I want them to feel that there are multiple ways of solving the same problem,” she said. “The learning curve is really steep in the real world.”

Chen still hears from her past students, and she finds teaching rewarding because of how intertwined she becomes in their lives. In fact, she said she spends a lot of time helping her students find jobs.

“It’s sometimes arduous, but ultimately rewarding,” she said.

Before SU, Chen taught at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), where she also led professional engineering master’s and international education programs. She has a Ph.D. and a master's of public health degree in environmental toxicology from the University of Michigan, along with a master's degree in biomedical sciences from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

A lot of Chen’s time –- aside from getting to know the university, exploring research opportunities and trying to connect past collaborators with her new ones –- is spent renovating the chancellor’s quarters. Since coming to campus, she learned that it was filled with asbestos, lead and radon.

“It's a very wonderful, historical building,” she said.

Currently, Chen and Syverud live in Armory Square with their dog, Lucky. They plan to move into the chancellor’s quarters later this month.

“We anticipate having a large number of faculty and students sharing the wonderful beauty with us,” she said.

SU has twice as many students as WUSTL, Chen said. And the Syracuse student body is dynamic, vibrant and diverse, she added.

Chen said that in St. Louis, there is civic pride because of Missouri-based companies like Purina Dog Chow and Anheuser-Busch Cos. However, in Syracuse, there is concerted support for the athletic teams.

Chen plans to insert herself, firmly, both on and off campus.

“I want to find a balance in my teaching and research,” she said, “and I would like to be involved with the community in a way that helps the educational mission of Syracuse University.”

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