Dean Maya Tolstoy
Maya Tolstoy, Maggie Walker Dean of the College of the Environment

Earlier this month, marine geophysicist Maya Tolstoy joined the University of Washington as the Maggie Walker Dean of the College of the Environment. Over her more than 30-year career as a researcher, professor and administrator, Dean Tolstoy has dedicated herself to furthering our understanding of the fundamental processes of our planet and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in academia.

The College welcomes its new dean at a pivotal time, when the impacts of the climate crisis are growing more visible each year and the need for equity and justice in our field is clearer than ever. We sat down with Dean Tolstoy to learn more about her own research, her passion for environmental science and how she plans to approach these challenges in her new role.

Q: What is the focus of your research, and do you intend to continue that work here at UW?

Maya Tolstoy: I work on mid-ocean ridges and seafloor earthquakes. In particular, I’ve recently been focused on Axial Seamount, right off the coast of Washington, as well as studying how seafloor eruptions and hydrothermal activity feed into climate change. It’s a very exciting time right now, because after decades of having to go to sea to get little snippets of data, we can live stream data to shore thanks to the Regional Cabled Array operated by the Ocean Observatories Initiative at the College of the Environment. We can witness eruptions in real time, which is just extraordinary. I’m excited to continue that work.

I’m very lucky that I’ve already been working with great collaborators at UW for a number of years. So where I’m able I will definitely stay involved with my research, but the College is my first priority.

Q: How has your experience as a researcher and professor guided your approach to this role?

MT: What really attracted me to my field of research was the seagoing part of it. I’ve always loved it, to the point that my colleagues joked that I should’ve just been a sailor. It’s an amazingly complex process — when you’re leading a research cruise, you have a team of scientists who you’re responsible for, and you have to ensure that they all know their jobs, understand the objectives and are working safely. And then you have to interface with the ship’s crew to make sure everyone is on the same page and considering all of the operational aspects. Everyone has to contribute their piece to achieve these goals.

But it took me a long time to realize why I loved it so much. It was really about the teamwork and camaraderie, and about being really focused on a particular goal together. I love that environment, and that sense of family you develop with a close-knit team going through a shared experience in the middle of nowhere.

Once that was clear to me, I started getting more interested in administration. It was all about problem solving with a team.

More generally, working at sea and studying earthquakes and volcanoes gives you a deep appreciation for the forces that shape our planet. Understanding the scale of those forces makes it all the more frightening that humans have had such a profound impact on our climate and environment, and motivates me to support the extraordinarily important work underway at the College of the Environment. The work here has never been more vital or more urgent.

Q: What are your top priorities for the College as you enter this role?

MT: I have three primary goals, all of which are tightly intertwined. The first is advancing diversity, equity and inclusion within the College. That is vital to doing excellent science and scholarship. Like almost everywhere in the field sciences, we have lots of work to do.

The second is to undertake a strategic planning process for the College. I feel it’s the right time in the College’s history to do that and to help us come together as more than the sum of our parts. I want us to have a clear message about who we are and what we strive to be.

Finally, the third goal is to raise the College’s profile, locally, nationally and internationally. The College is still quite young, and I want more people to know what it is that makes us unique, and what makes our work so important.

Q: What do you think are the College of the Environment’s greatest strengths?

MT: There are many strengths, but what stands out most is the extraordinary breadth and depth of the work done here. We have such strong units in every area of environmental science, and to have that strength in such a broad array of fields is incredible. We also have the full range of fundamental research, applied research and solutions-based work, and I think the College does all of them very well.

The other strength I see is a really collaborative environment, not just within the College but throughout the University. That opens up opportunities to work across colleges and across units within the College, and puts us in an excellent position to lead on climate and environmental issues.

We have strong ties to the community, but I think there are always more opportunities to expand upon that, particularly as the world demands more solutions to environmental issues. Many of our researchers already work in close partnership with communities, and I think we can continue to grow our community-based work.

Q: Can you tell us about your approach to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the College?

MT: Our values regarding diversity, equity and inclusion have to be interwoven into everything we do in the College. There are big-picture approaches we can take, such as inclusive hiring processes and policies that cultivate an academic and professional space where everyone feels welcome, but we also need to consider the power of small decisions. We should aspire to be an institution where people feel comfortable speaking up and actively encouraging their colleagues to be better. We’re all imperfect, and we all have things we can work on.

Leadership has to model what we want to see throughout the College, and we need to be constantly messaging the importance of building an inclusive environment. I think that’s something that’s often overlooked. You can’t just hire and recruit a diverse group of people and then think that you’re done. You have to actively develop a culture that is welcoming, supportive and allows people of all backgrounds to thrive.