Led by 'Doing the right thing,' Joan Curry takes on role as ENVS Interim Department Head

Sept. 29, 2023

After nearly 30 years in ENVS, Joan Curry was promoted to the leadership role in August 2023

Joan Curry poses on the steps of Forbes Building on the UArizona main campus.

Joan Curry

Jake Kerr

Joan Curry’s path from US Naval Academy to Interim Head of the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona was not simple, but it was guided predominantly by just one principal: trust in her moral compass.

As Jon Chorover, former Department Head, was promoted to the Interim Associate VP and Dean of Research in CALES in August, Curry was selected to lead the department until a full search is conducted — a move that made natural sense to Chorover.

“We are all fortunate to have Professor Curry step into the leadership of ENVS because she brings to that role a breadth of experience from her time as an active teaching and research contributor to the department,” Chorover said. “She has also played a central role in shaping the department’s priorities for the last several years as the Associate Head.”

Curry joined the department in 1995 as a researcher in physical chemistry with a focus in microscopic material interactions. After a half-decade of research, she began realizing her ability and passion for teaching.

“It took me a few years, but eventually I discovered I could connect with students in the classroom, and this is a useful skill I could build on,” Curry said.

As she leaned into pedagogy, Curry quickly began receiving recognition campus-wide as an innovative leader in the classroom. After earning several teaching awards, Curry was the subject of a case-study to look at her unique ‘teaching as a team’ approach.

Rather than limiting Teaching Assistants (TA) to medial tasks, such as taking attendance and collecting papers, Curry realized she needed to embrace each individual for their personal strengths and insight.

“With these large classrooms, there’s no way an instructor can see every interaction that is going on, on their own,” Curry said. “When we start seeing students as more than just helpers, we can imagine more together and actually create something new.”

Curry’s journey to reach this point began in Annapolis, Maryland, where she attended the U.S. Naval Academy in only the third class allowing women to enroll. As she was finishing her first year, she watched the last class of all-male students graduate.

During her academic years earning her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, as well as during her postdoctoral position, Curry faced prejudiced speech and actions due to her gender and sexuality. However, Curry said she tried to always remember her moral compass and not let others’ negative opinions affect her through her career decisions.

“I’ve always tried to follow my intuition on what feels good, for me,” Curry said. “I’ve done a lot of mind training to make decisions not based on what anyone else thinks, but on what I think is right.”

Following her intuition has led Curry to a successful career as a professor and as a leader in academia. For four years, she chaired the University-Wide General Education Committee, where she successfully transformed their system of course approvals using her team-oriented approach.

In just two years, her committee approved more than 400 courses by enabling and empowering instructors to propose courses in an effective way and following up with constructive feedback.

As Curry continues to move forward, she plans to continue to implement the lessons she’s learned throughout her career to help strengthen the Department of Environmental Science and the University as a whole.