When Dr. Marlene MacLeish ’68 was in her first year at Brescia, she failed a course in Spanish. It was at this moment, that a very observant Ursuline Sister provided her with advice that has endured, “failure is not a bad thing, but rather an opportunity to refine strategies, calibrate habits and – finally – to move on with life.” Dr. MacLeish never forgot this moment and the wisdom of the Ursulines. In fact, she used that insight and knowledge as she went on to become: a Harvard-graduate; a dean of students at Harvard School of Public Health the City College of New York and professor at the City College of New York and the Morehouse School of Medicine. She directed educational outreach for NASA’s six-nation mission, Neurolab, and served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Academy of Astronautics in Paris, France. She was the recipient of Brescia’s Carmelle Murphy Alumna of Distinction Award in 2004 and received an honorary degree from the University of Western Ontario in 2010.
Why did you choose Brescia for university?
I have always had a restless spirit of adventure and a passion to explore our global world. So, just before my 21st birthday, I left my homeland, Jamaica, in a quest for higher education in London, Ontario. Although it was the summer of 1963, I can still remember the moment when I was first introduced to Brescia like it was yesterday. As soon as I stepped foot on the University’s beautiful and serene campus, I knew that it was the place for me.
My relationship with Brescia since the very beginning is profound. When I left Jamaica, I knew I wanted to begin my educational journey in a safe and supportive place, and Brescia provided that haven for me. Because I was 21 years of age – and older than the typical student – I was not only trying to achieve my university credentials, but also looking for a place where I could think more deeply about life. Brescia gave me all this and more – helping me feel safe when I needed it, but also challenging me to achieve academically better and to search for a life that was bigger than mere “individualism.” I went to an all-girls Anglican high school in Jamaica and so was already comfortable in an all-women’s environment, but I loved how women walked around Brescia so confidently. Also, I cherished the long and soothing walks around Brescia’s peaceful and safe campus with my roommate and friends.
Lastly, I quickly recognized that Brescia in the 1960’s was a unique place. It was a religious institution, which saw the world through different lenses and welcomed people from all corners of the world with open arms. This was so important to me when I started at Brescia and is what has kept me engaged in the University over the years – it is a place that doesn’t force you to be anything but your authentic self. At Brescia, I never felt pressured to be anyone other than a Jamaican country girl.
What path led you to your role at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)?
It was a long journey before taking on my role at NASA. My career ambitions evolved over time, but perhaps, I can say that through it all I was, “Brescia Bold.” After completing my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Brescia, I graduated with my Masters and Doctorate in Education at Harvard University, which I attended with my husband, Peter, who I had met at Western University. I honed my educational and leadership skills – first as a student and later as a professor and Dean, at Harvard. It was also while I was at Harvard that I became the proud mother of two wonderful children.
After more than a decade at Harvard, my family then moved to New York, where Peter joined the Neurobiology faculty at Rockefeller University. While in New York, I was appointed Associate Dean of Students, Sophie Davis Medical School City College of New York and later professor of Education.
Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I came to the Morehouse School of Medicine, to contribute to the development of the third historically black medical school in the U.S. Peter founded the Neuroscience Institute at Morehouse and I collaborated with scientists there to successfully bring the NASA-funded six-nation Neurolab Mission Education and Public Outreach grant to Morehouse. This mission was a six-nation collaboration, celebrating the Decade of the Brain. The international scope of educational component paved the way for my future role with the NASA-funded, National Space Biological Research Institute and my appointment to the Board of Trustees of the International Academy of Astronautics in Paris in 2007.
Over the past eight years I have refocused my academic pursuits on health disparities research on US and Caribbean populations, to better understand how to lessen health inequities among US minority groups and how to make health care more accessible to everyone.
What are some of the learnings that you have been able to take away from your experience at Brescia and apply to your career?
To be bold! I love that Brescia endorses the notion that women can be bold and take chances – by working hard, showing innovation and leading.
Several of my Brescia teachers made a lasting impact in my life. First, there was Mother St. Michael, who was an intellectual force to be reckoned with. She instilled in her students that one must be informed on a topic before speaking in her class – meaning you always had to do your homework. My favorite teacher was, perhaps, Mother McKenzie. She was a calm, joyous English literature professor who delighted in reading aloud to her class – especially poetry. Another influential professor was Mother Corona. She was an intellectual from Europe, who was often around for a chat or to lend an ear to students at breakfast. She added some of the global mystique to Brescia. The Brescia mystique was that, with hard work, women really can accomplish any goal they set for themselves.
To what do you attribute your professional success?
First and foremost, the unconditional love and support of my family. This has been a constant in my life and has gotten me through everything. At Harvard, the love and support of my husband and family not only helped me through grad school, but also through raising my two children.
In addition to the support of my family, I credit much of my success to my spirit of inquiry. I have always believed in the value of asking questions and not dismissing things, simply because you think they have no meaning. My spirit of inquiry has led me to a life of exploration and getting to work with a variety of different people.
Strong role models have also played an important role in my life – especially my mother, who was a profoundly powerful woman. From elementary school life to university, my role models and teachers were mostly women, who taught me that I could do anything.
I guess, part of my success has also been an innate understanding that in life, you don’t have to be a queen; you can be a queen-maker. I am completely comfortable being a “queen-maker”, which is a fundamental tenet of working in teams. It’s not just about becoming credentialed and being the ultimate authority, but it’s about celebrating others, and giving them the chance to take center stage sometimes.
Lastly, my education at Brescia not only set me up for the rigors of Harvard, but for life. The Ursuline Sisters expected a lot of their students. They were excellent educators, who encouraged their students to work hard and never settle for anything but the best.
What advice would you give to Brescia alumnae and students?
I don’t typically like to give advice, but if I have to, I would encourage Brescia’s alumnae and students to give back to those in need. I believe that giving back is an essential part of moving forward in your thinking and in life. We now live in a rapidly changing world, where technology is redefining the global world that we have come to take for granted. With technology flattening the world – making opportunities equal to anyone who knows technology – we need to find ways to help less fortunate people not fall off the edge. This requires us to have a moral compass that includes giving back.
How do you define leadership? Or, what characteristics make a great leader?
I have taught undergraduate and graduate courses on leadership throughout my career, and one of my favourite texts has been Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald A. Heifetz. He examines formal and informal leadership that frames tasks so that people can understand situational challenges and commit to problem-solving goals.
We live in extraordinary times that are challenging us to come up with new concepts of leadership, that don’t necessarily revolve around one central leader. For example, I saw my mother put adaptative leadership into action, as she led elegantly and “without authority”. My mother, like many women in her times, did not have the benefit of formal higher education, but she was profoundly intelligent and an incredible leader within her community and church. She also raised three daughters, whom she told, “you can do anything.” She expected us to be successful without flaunting authority. So, for me, leadership means creating an environment for multidisciplinary teams to succeed in collective thinking that values culture and collaboration. Also, I understand that successful leaders must have clear vision, polished strategy that the ability to constantly measures goals and respect for the intellectual contributions of each member of the team.
What are your hopes for Brescia in the next 100 years?
That Brescia remains bold. That Brescia helps the next generations of graduates reimagine the technology-driven global world that we are going to live in. I am confident that Brescia’s leaders will craft a way forward that prepares students for productive lives in global communities that are humane and democratic.
Also, I am hopeful that this “way forward” for Brescia students will include opportunities of everyone – not just for the wealthy, but especially for those who have been historically left out or denied access to education and the basic resources that meaningful lives require. I am heartened by Brescia’s global educational outreach, and it is my sincere hope that Brescia will continue to prepare students for the challenges of a global world where resources are unevenly distributed and life is constant struggle.
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