#LeadLikeAWoman with Laura Harris

Assistant Professor & Science Laboratory Coordinator at Davenport University

We need more women in leadership roles to inspire and mentor other women leaders. Every woman possesses a unique perspective that can contribute to the advancement of humanity, but we still lack equal representation in leadership.

What does leadership mean to you?

For me, leadership is setting a positive example for my daughters and students. In the early years of my teaching career, while a new mom to two young girls, I taught a basic health class to non-science major freshman. It covered topics like nutrition, exercise, and mental health. During this time, I realized that no one (my students, kids, etc.) should listen to what I teach if I did not practice it myself. Effectively; practice what you preach.

Who has influenced your idea of leadership?

My first introduction to leadership came from my dad who was a poor, 13-year old, non-English speaking immigrant when he came to this country. Despite these challenges, he was the first in my family to become a nationalized citizen and graduate with a higher education degree. While growing up, I would sleep under his desk as he worked extremely hard to become one of the state’s best insurance salesman, eventually starting his own award-winning insurance agency that he led for several decades. My dad taught me anything was possible if you worked hard enough and did not quit.

For the past decade, a strong influence has been and continues to be my daughters, Serena and Lilly. Their constant observation inspires me to improve and seeing their endless potential reminds me of my impact. I am proud to watch them develop their voices as they explore their interests and I cannot wait to see their contributions as women leaders.

I recently learned that leaders are only as good as their supporters and I am grateful for those who support me. For almost 20 years, my husband Rob has been my greatest supporter. I cannot count the number of times he saved my data or fixed my computer among the myriad of other things he does daily so I can pursue my goals. I am fortunate to have supporters like newly minted Senior Master Carl Flotka, Bridget Watts, and Terri Pulice who regularly remind me of my potential and encourage me to reach it. I am also grateful for the support of my students and now alumni, particularly those working on research projects alongside me. They all change how I view myself, my projects, and leadership itself.

Why do we need more women in leadership roles? What do they add to the table?

We need more women in leadership roles to inspire and mentor other women leaders. Every woman possesses a unique perspective that can contribute to the advancement of humanity, but we still lack equal representation in leadership. For example, in science your voice is frequently measured by the number and quality of the research papers you publish. Authors are usually ordered by their contribution to the project with the last author indicating a leadership position on the project. In my field of computational biology, less than a quarter of last authors on scholarly research papers are women (Bonham, 2017). Recently, Bonham and Stefan found that having a woman in the last author position increased the likelihood of the other paper authors also being women. From this they concluded that women computational biologists may play a role in influencing gender balance (Bonham, 2017). This emphasizes that by having more women in leadership roles, at least in technology fields, then other women will contribute their skills to tackle the major problems facing humanity today.

How are you leading in your career/community?

I believe people learn best from experiential learning (i.e., reflective life experiences). As a cell biologist by training, experiential learning to me meant a potentially publishable scientific research project, which can be extremely expensive. In 2015, I had the opportunity to teach my first honor’s student, Michael Hourani. Rather than have him do a literature-based project, I decided to have him expand on the computational approaches I learned from my first master’s thesis. We presented his work as a poster the following spring at the conference of Michigan Chapter of American Society for Microbiology (MI-ASM).

Michael’s participation in the MI-ASM conference caught the attention of his classmates who started volunteering to work on research projects for the opportunity to present. From that one student, I built Harris Interdisciplinary Research, an innovative student-centered group comprised of primarily talented and strong women such as Amber Parks who was the first student to win back-to-back Davenport Day of Research best student presentation awards. Harris Interdisciplinary Research has provided over 22 Davenport University students and alumni and 2 Bath Middle School students opportunities to conduct, present, and publish computational and wet-bench research. We have presented dozens of posters at state-wide conferences and were ecstatic when Kristine Breakfield won a best undergraduate poster from MI-ASM in 2018. In June, my student Blue Goad and I presented our first national scientific poster at ASM Microbes, the main conference for the largest life-sciences society in the world, in San Francisco (https://www.asm.org/about-asm).

To reach a broader scientific audience, researchers need to publish their papers in international peer-reviewed scientific journals. Accordingly, I sought out opportunities for students to publish co-authored scientific papers. Since inception, we have published 4 student co-authored papers and have 2 more to be published by 2020, including an invited review paper on our methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) project for the Swiss journal Microorganisms (ISSN 2076-2607).

While some students stay for only a semester or two, I have several volunteers who are still working on projects as alumni, like Kuana School. Having worked on projects as both a student and now an alumni mentor for other students, Kuana has used her years with my research group to develop her own research goals. I am excited to have her share her perspective at our 4hr pre-conference workshop for ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE) in Washington D.C. on August 1. There we will share a research-based computational biology approach that Kuana piloted as a student that will be used by professors in classrooms nationwide. We look forward to moving this and other projects into the K-12 system in upcoming years.


What is the best way for someone to contact you?

laura.harris@davenport.edu and (517) 719-1729


Michigan ATHENA is a program dedicated to developing, supporting, and honoring women leaders throughout Michigan. This program is part of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce Foundation initiatives. To find out more about this program please visit us at www.michamber.com/ATHENA

If you have any questions or would like to nominate someone to be featured in our #LeadLikeAWoman series please email me at akeimach@michamber.com