Paul Koch stepping down after 12 years as dean of physical and biological sciences

The Division of Physical and Biological Sciences has made exceptional strides in key areas under Dean Koch’s leadership

Paul Koch
Paul Koch (photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Paul Koch, distinguished professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, has led the campus's Division of Physical and Biological Sciences since 2011. In August, he will step down as dean and take a sabbatical leave before returning to full-time teaching and research.

Dr. Bryan Gaensler, currently director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, will take the helm as the new dean of physical and biological sciences on August 15.

“Under Dean Koch’s  leadership, the growth of the division has involved everything from its size and scope to impact, diversity, student accomplishments and prestige,” said Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer. “He is a dogged advocate for the division, and that persistence comes from an unflagging belief in what the division’s faculty can do for science, for impact, and for our students.”

Professor Grant Hartzog, who served as associate dean for undergraduate education and is now chair of the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, praised Koch for his leadership style.

“It’s impressive that he has a good understanding of what every faculty member in the division is doing,” Hartzog said. “He’s very accessible when you have questions, and he helps look for solutions. When he says no, he tells you why. The decisions are well reasoned and transparent. And if he feels he’s made a mistake or something didn’t go well, he’ll apologize—he’s not defensive. He’s been a fantastic dean, and we’ll be sorry to see him go.”

Focus on student success

Under Koch’s leadership, the division has launched important new degree programs, seen dramatic growth in research funding, and made substantial changes to the science curriculum with a focus on improving student outcomes. Efforts to level the playing field for students who come from less privileged backgrounds are improving the undergraduate experience for all students and helping to boost retention and graduation rates for science majors.

An ambitious effort to revamp the division’s introductory science courses began in 2014 with support from a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant.

“That was the beginning of much greater attention to the way we teach, recognizing that students learn in different ways, and expanding opportunities for students to have the kinds of transformative experiences that lead to them thriving in science,” Koch said.

Faculty in the division continue to work on improving the science curriculum through their involvement and leadership in HHMI’s Inclusive Excellence Learning Community.

“He’s been incredibly attentive and supportive of those efforts, and that includes providing funds to people and projects, as well as convening meetings and navigating the academic senate,” Hartzog said. “These introductory science courses touch many different majors and programs, so just navigating that and getting the right people together to discuss it is a large and difficult task that he’s been managing.”

An Active Learning Classroom in the Science and Engineering Library and a growing number of teaching professors in the division also reflect the renewed emphasis on teaching and student success. In addition, the expansion of field courses and new course-based undergraduate research programs are helping to make research and field experiences accessible to more students.

“It all laps back onto equity and inclusion by making those courses and opportunities welcoming and accessible for all students,” Koch said. “The science division is here to recognize talent and help people reach their aspirations. We’re not here to weed anyone out, we’re here to develop and nurture talent.”

The number of faculty in the division has grown substantially during Koch’s time as dean, with a large fraction of the current faculty having been hired during his tenure. In the process, the division has been working to increase the diversity of its faculty to be more representative of the student population. The proportion of women on the faculty has increased significantly, and progress is also being made in racial and ethnic diversity and representation of LGBTQ faculty, Koch said.

“All that leads to better science, because folks from different backgrounds bring different perspectives that lead to more creative solutions,” he said.

New majors and graduate programs

New undergraduate degree programs launched under Koch’s leadership include the environmental sciences major, jointly run by the Departments of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Ocean Sciences; a new microbiology major in the Department of Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology; and Global and Community Health, an interdisciplinary program offering B.A. and B.S. degrees, with faculty and courses from across the divisions.

At the graduate level, the Coastal Science and Policy program, an interdisciplinary master’s degree program administered jointly with the Social Sciences Division, launched in 2018. With a focus on solutions and practical skills for addressing real-world environmental challenges, the program is graduating strong cohorts of students with M.S. degrees, and it is also attracting students who want to earn a Ph.D. in another field with a designated emphasis in coastal science and policy. Starting this fall, new graduate degrees in materials science and engineering will also be offered, administered jointly with the Baskin School of Engineering.

New facilities for the division include the Biomedical Sciences Building (which was planned and largely completed before Koch came on as dean); the Coastal Biology Building, which opened at the Coastal Science Campus in 2017 along with a refurbished and expanded Marine Vertebrate Facility; and new materials science and engineering laboratories at the Westside Research Park.

Research powerhouse

On the research side, Koch said the growth in research funding has far outstripped the growth in the size of the faculty, reflecting the campus’s growing strength as a research powerhouse. Extramural research funding for the division in fiscal year 2022 was more than $85 million, and could top $100 million for 2023, he said.

“We’ve doubled down on our strength in coastal science and climate resilience, and our stature in that area is reflected in getting state funding for the Center for Coastal Climate Resilience,” Koch said.

The division has also invested in building its strength in the biomedical sciences, establishing strong programs in areas such as neuroscience, stem cell biology, drug discovery, and infectious disease. The astronomy program has long been a strength of the campus, and it remains so after some faculty turnover driven in part by a period of uncertainty about long-term funding for UC Observatories.

“I think we came out of that as strong as ever, maybe even stronger,” Koch said.

The COVID-19 pandemic was an extraordinary challenge for the entire campus, and enabling science students to have the usual hands-on learning experiences was especially difficult.

“It’s hard to even put a finger on all that had to happen to keep the wheels on during the pandemic, but one example is that we still managed to have some field classes and lab classes when everything went online,” Koch said.

With campus operations mostly back normal, Koch said it feels like the right time for him to step down.

“These jobs need fresh ideas and new thinking,” he said. “In general, I tried to lead by still somewhat operating as a faculty member, so I can better understand the experience of faculty as they navigate the campus. And I've led by channeling the best ideas people brought to me. All the ideas came from the faculty and staff and students, and I just tried to unleash their potential.”

During his upcoming sabbatical leave, Koch said he looks forward to developing a few ideas he has for new research projects, in addition to finishing up some stalled projects he hasn’t had time to work on. One of the new projects he has in mind would explore the past and future of California’s iconic redwoods.

“That’s something I’ve been wanting to tackle for years, and now is the time to do it,” he said.


In honor of the twelve years Paul Koch has served as dean, please consider giving to the Dean’s Excellence Fund or Dean's Endowment. Contributions to these funds allow the dean the flexibility to launch new programs, supplement scholarships, enhance facilities, and support research opportunities that make a difference in our community and world.