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On the Move: Sally C. Morton takes helm of College of Science

In the early 1980s, as the Stanford University president rode his bike to the office, he would pass an intrepid undergraduate pedaling around campus in the 6 a.m. hour.

The undergraduate was Sally C. Morton, delighting in her first job: crisscrossing the university, opening classroom and office buildings, turning on lights, and setting up audiovisual equipment in lecture halls. 

“I would say, ‘Good morning, President Kennedy!’ and he would say, ‘Good morning,’ and I would think to myself, I have opened up Stanford, President Kennedy is going to his office, and all can begin on campus,” Morton said.

Morton, who started in July 2016 as the College of Science dean, is described by her peers as an early riser, an extremely intelligent and driven professional who fixes her gaze on a target and then hits it. “She is a strong leader—and she is getting stronger. I think there are very big things ahead for the College of Science after picking a leader like Sally,” said American Statistical Association Executive Director Ron Wasserstein, who worked with Morton when she was the association’s president.

In less than a year’s time in Blacksburg, Morton has invigorated the college with a vision that directly ties to the future of Virginia Tech. Since Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and Provost Thanassis Rikakis have led the creation of Destination Areas and Strategic Growth Areas—areas in which the university can become truly world-class—Morton identified four complimentary strategic themes in the college: Integrated Science; Data and Decision Sciences, including the Adaptive Brain; Global Change; and Materials for Health, Information, and Energy. That Morton could articulate a clear vision after only five months on the job comes as no surprise to her colleagues in statistics and biostatistics. 

“She is very, very smart, very intelligent, very skilled,” said two-time Virginia Tech alumnus John Thompson, a fellow statistician and director of the U.S. Census Bureau. “She understands how to be practical and how to find the right solution for the right problem. Sally is going to take Virginia Tech in a new direction, and keep Virginia Tech at the absolute forefront of leadership in advancing science.”

A Matter of Chance

Morton said her career in statistics was pure chance. In high school, she enjoyed mathematics as a way to solve problems; at Stanford University, she was a mathematical sciences major. “I didn’t even know what a statistician was, to be honest,” she said. 

Then, in her first statistics class under famed professor and researcher Rupert Miller, she was inspired. “We were looking at problems I really thought were important,” Morton said, “and I saw how statistics could be used.” In 1983, several faculty members took her to lunch and suggested that she should pursue a master’s degree to become a statistician. 

A child of England-born parents who felt at home in London, Morton chose the London School of Economics. Master’s degree in hand, she returned to Stanford to earn a Ph.D. in statistics—and learned that RAND, the public policy think-tank, was looking for doctoral student interns in its Statistics Group. John Rolph, then the head of the group, brought Morton on as a summer intern—and in 1989, hired her as the first female statistician. Said Rolph, “She is one of the most effective leaders that are out there.” 

At RAND, one of Morton’s most high-profile studies examined the death penalty and racial discrimination, examining whether non-white offenders, as well as suspects convicted of killing white victims, were more likely to be sentenced to death. The study influenced the national conversation surrounding the death penalty. “That was the type of impact I always wanted to have—to use statistics to make a difference,” Morton said. 

Later, leading the RAND Statistics Group, Morton worked to increase its base of women and underrepresented employees. Achieving a diversity of people and viewpoints is a passion of Morton’s. “I’ve worked with many interdisciplinary teams, and what I’ve learned is you really want people that think differently than you do,” Morton said. “That’s what the transdisciplinary sciences are all about.” 

Morton left RAND in 2005 to become the vice president for statistics and epidemiology at RTI International in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. There, she also served as an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina’s Department of Biostatistics, and was elected president of the ASA and chair of Section U (Statistics) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

As Morton’s career progressed, her research returned time and time again to biostatistics, a sub-discipline of statistics that focuses on biological and healthcare applications of data—familiar territory, perhaps, for the child of two physicians. In 2010, Morton became professor and chair of the Department of Biostatistics in the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, and director of the Comparative Effectiveness Research Center, part of the university’s Health Policy Institute. 

Quantifiable Impact

Around the time that Morton felt she had accomplished her goals in Pittsburgh, the College of Science’s founding dean, Lay Nam Chang, was stepping down in Blacksburg. Morton knew the great reputation of Virginia Tech’s statistics department. She had researched the university in order to write an informed letter of support for Ron Fricker, now the department’s head, and she had kept in touch with statistics professor Sallie Keller, a long-time friend. 

Morton was drawn to the college’s innovative approaches, such as the new Academy of Integrated Science and its Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program. She was also drawn by the strength and momentum of the university. “I was excited about the new leadership at the university. I thought this was a time of change, a time of challenge, and a place to learn,” Morton said. “I always go to places where I think I can learn things, to places where I would be proud to work.” 

Morton hopes to impact not just the college, but the university, in part by educating all students on the use of data as a tool. “At the university level, I’m pushing the concept of data literacy, the idea that all students need to leave the university with the ability to look at evidence and data, whether qualitative or quantitative, both as professionals and in their personal lives,” Morton said. “Our students should be able to access data, analyze it, and use it to make good decisions.” 

Morton’s leadership has not gone unnoticed. Provost Rikakis said, “Her unique ability to question and adapt has set a standard and helps us all do better as we seek to provide the best education and opportunity for our students.” 

Added Keller, her long-time colleague, “Tech is very lucky to have her, because she has walked in the worlds of academia, government, and industry. She knows how to bring that experience to us, and provide inspiration to push us in those directions.” 

Morton has been inspired to find that Virginia Tech has its eyes not only on the future of science and research, but on the well-being of its employees, faculty, staff, and students. A college can be blessed with buildings and expensive equipment, she said, but “people are the only currency you have at a college. Fundamentally, it’s all about the people.” 

As she learns about the college’s various disciplines, her optimism about science abounds. “The challenges that we are facing, as well as the opportunities driven by the big data revolution, are tremendous. Nanoscience is an excellent example of where the science is just moving so fast,” Morton said. “I’m very enthusiastic.”