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Spotlight on Emily Updegraff, PhD, TGS Chief of Staff

Emily Updegraff, PhD, joined The Graduate School (TGS) in September 2019 as the chief of staff. In this role, she is responsible for the school’s human resources administration, strategic communications, and daily operations. She facilitates communication within TGS and with other Northwestern schools and partners and serves as a strategic adviser to the dean and associate provost for graduate education. Prior to TGS, Emily spent nine years as the director of operations & outreach/assistant chair in Northwestern’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. She has also taught physiology and cell biology courses for the School for Professional Studies since 2011.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I studied how flowering plants communicate in the reproductive process, specifically the signals that control pollen germination and direct the growth of a pollen tube as it delivers germ cells to produce a seed.

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
I came to higher education administration by way of basic research, so the fact that I'm here is a twist! I started in research administration and gradually took on a wide variety of administrative and management responsibilities during a period of significant growth for my department.

Why Northwestern?
The research and education that take place here are something every member of the Northwestern community can be very proud of. I love the collaborative spirit I've observed in all areas of this University, between staff and faculty, postdoctoral trainees and graduate students, undergraduates and alumni – at all levels. I'm proud to be part of an institution that truly values diversity and brings together people from many backgrounds to promote knowledge and discovery in the world.

How do you unwind after a long day?
I love to read literary fiction and poetry. Music is also a major part of my life – listening, playing, and supporting my son and daughter in their practice!

What books are on your bedside table?
I just finished The Overstory by Richard Powers and The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, which I read aloud to my kids. I'm currently reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and an anthology of 100 great "modern" poems.

What inspires you?
Being in nature, whether it's the woods or a lovely manicured garden, always refreshes me.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a physician, but I learned I'm too squeamish. This is why I worked on plants, not animals, for my graduate research!

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
Some of the best advice I received as I started my career was, "you figure it out as you go along." That's not to say having a plan is unimportant, but being flexible and ready to learn as you go is really important. I'd tell my younger self to be a lifelong learner.

Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
As a teacher, I've learned a lot by trial and error. One thing that sometimes hasn't gone as planned (and still doesn't at times!) is having students read and interpret an exam question the same way I do. I try to read questions from their point of view, or at least from multiple points of view, in order to anticipate misunderstandings.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?
It's very satisfying to help staff find a niche that matches their strengths so they can flourish in their work, and as far as I've been able to do that, it's made me proud. I also love to see a team work together in selfless ways toward a common goal, and this has been another satisfying aspect of being a manager.