Reflections on 11 years as PBS department chair

“I am bullish on PBS,” said former department chair Bill Hetrick at the celebration of his time as chair, instantly capturing the zeal with which he committed himself to the department and the work of running it. “We are in a great spot and the future is very bright. We are a community, we really are.” A more avid advocate would be hard to find.

And yet, he recalls, thinking back, following in the footsteps of his two predecessors, Linda Smith and Joe Steinmetz, was daunting. "They had done such a tremendous job and had such respect from their colleagues and the administration,” he observes. “I spent the better part of a year and a half just thinking, ‘What would Linda do?’” With little experience on how to administer a department, he says, “I thought a lot about how I just shouldn’t screw up.”

But the tenor of the office quickly changed with the realization that 2013 marked the 125th anniversary of PBS, a milestone brought to his attention by Professor Ben Motz, then a grad student, lecturer, and director of pedagogy. As Hetrick explains, “That recognition set off a chain of events which allowed us to reflect on the rich tradition of the department. It allowed us to reflect on what we were doing in the department and to amplify that through events and activities. It was sort of a gelling activity for the department and for the chair’s office.”

Bill chats it up with attendees of the 2014 Alumni Recognition Banquet.

Suddenly the word “quasquicentennial” was on everyone’s lips and a view of PBS that hearkened back to 1888, the year William Lowe Bryan, having returned from Germany where he studied the new discipline of experimental psychology, set up what is now the oldest continuing (if not the first) psychology lab in the U.S. that subsequently transformed into one of the most prolific, distinguished programs in the country.

On the wings of that history, Hetrick launched a new set of PBS traditions, setting up an annual alumni recognition banquet and a series of three annual awards by which the department could honor the extraordinary careers of its alumni. He also championed a vision of the department itself as a “hub” defined by the connectedness and “synergy” (to use one of Hetrick’s favorite words) among its members and with other departments and fields. As he summed it up at that time: “The essence of who we are as a department lies in our connections to each other, which foster game-changing scientific discovery and the truly innovative work that we’re known for arises from the synergistic relationships among our faculty and students.”


Day in and day out, I was perpetually impressed and surprised by how the faculty engaged in game-changing research and by the creative ways they engaged with students in the classroom. That was something that really reverberated throughout the 11 years.

– Professor Bill Hetrick


As Mike Jones, the new PBS department chair, observed in his remarks at the celebration for Hetrick, “We were already a hub field. But Bill helped to solidify us as a hub department on campus.” This is now exemplified by the new Mind-Brain-Machine Quadrangle, which physically connects interlocking disciplines, and collaborative work instigated by the IU Grand Challenges initiative and the interdisciplinary work of the Gill Center for Biomolecular Science.

Another one of Hetrick’s giant undertakings came in the form of a 10-ton limestone brain sculpture, now affectionately named “Harlan” after the Hal Harlan family, who funded the sculpture and other PBS projects. A prominent campus landmark, this too serves to bring people together and consolidate the image of who we are as a department. As Jones noted, it “all came from Bill’s idea that he wanted something for people to congregate around. Now every day, people are taking pictures, and they are tagging Harlan,” who has become nothing short of “a social media superstar.”

Bill celebrates IU Day in front of Harlan the Brain in 2023.

Life as a chair, however, has not been all banquets, awards, brain sculpture installations and social media stardom. As Jones reminded us, “Bill fought tirelessly for our department, negotiating passionately, even aggressively with upper-level administration. He led the department through a lengthy and taxing external review process and greatly expanded the faculty and facilities.” He also “led the department through the pandemic, prioritizing the safety and well-being of faculty, students and staff and helping us keep our research and teaching productive and vibrant.” 

What is the view he gained from the chair’s perspective on both the university as a whole and the department itself? That question could be answered in 100 different ways (and he will provide all of them). Here are some highlights.

Early on, Hetrick explains, he experienced firsthand how interconnected the parts are within the university. “Whether it was the issue of undergraduate enrollment, which had dropped dramatically in the College, or the need to demonstrate the value of the university to the State, as with the Grand Challenge initiative, these major pressures on the university affected how the department was expected to run.” This, in turn, “affects how the chair engages the department and executes a plan to address these pressures.”


[Bill] led the department through the pandemic, prioritizing the safety and well-being of faculty, students and staff and helping us keep our research and teaching productive and vibrant.

– Professor Mike Jones, Chair


All else can be summed up in four words: faculty, students, staff and alumni.

As a faculty member for many years in the department, Hetrick had been aware of the excellent research and teaching going on in the department. But it wasn’t until becoming chair that he was repeatedly struck by how truly outstanding this research and teaching really was. “Day in and day out,” he explains, “I was perpetually impressed and surprised by how the faculty engaged in game-changing research and by the creative ways they engaged with students in the classroom. That was something that really reverberated throughout the 11 years.”

Then there are the students: “Students make the university. Without them we’d simply be a research institute. Faculty expertise, scholarship and creative activity are at the core of the academic mission, but faculty research greatly benefits from student engagement in labs and students, in turn, benefit from being immersed in active, hands-on learning. Our students go on to impact our town, our state, our country and our world.  Being student-centric is one of the key things for a chair to keep in mind.”

Bill poses with Jesse Goode and Preston Garraghty at the 2018 PBS staff holiday party.

And then there is the critical role of staff: “My predecessor Linda Smith was effusive in her praise of the staff, who are critical to the department’s research and teaching missions. Faculty and staff are separate sides of the same coin. They go hand-in hand. I tried to amplify the voice of the staff and tried to engage with the staff in ways that honored their contributions and the wisdom they have to make the department even better. Recognizing the importance of the staff and being available to hear their input is really important.”

And finally, the alumni. “Engagement and recognition of our alumni,” Hetrick insists, “should be at the forefront of what the department does. Our alumni are doing amazing things that are worth amplifying, celebrating, and using to inspire current students.” Connecting students with alumni can provide a valuable link to “non-academic careers that will help our students engage with the world outside of the so-called ivory tower.” Moreover, stories from our alumni remind us of our history, helping us stay connected to our past, strengthen our community and provide the greatly needed financial support for our endeavors.

Bill takes a stroll with his lab in 2017.

With that hard-earned wisdom, he returns to the ongoing work in his highly productive lab, focused on brain function in psychotic and autism spectrum disorders, cannabis use, and predoctoral training in clinical and translational science, among other topics. He continues to work on projects with researchers in the IU School of Medicine in Kenya and Uganda, setting up labs that enable Eastern African researchers to study the after-effects on the brains of patients with HIV and malaria. He is inspired, he says, “to work with young people and colleagues who are anxious to develop the capacity to do clinical and cognitive neuroscience in these developing countries.” On the continent where he grew up and played a formative role in his development, he also sees it as kind of a homecoming.

Hetrick is grateful, however, for having had the privilege to serve the department as chair. “It’s an honor to serve as chair. It’s been an absolute honor. It’s an awesome responsibility, but it’s an honor to have been entrusted with this position.”

And after 11 years as chair, you can be sure his successors will be left asking in any situations that arise, “What would Bill do?”

Hear Bill's address to attendees at the celebration of his tenure!


Science Writer