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Going back to teaching biology a tough choice, but right for me: Susannah Gal

Posted 6/12/19

What’s in a name or a title? Sometimes a lot!

I was born Susannah Gal (no middle name). As a young girl and even in college, I was known as Susie (spelled like this, not Suzy or Susy or any …

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Going back to teaching biology a tough choice, but right for me: Susannah Gal


What’s in a name or a title? Sometimes a lot!

I was born Susannah Gal (no middle name). As a young girl and even in college, I was known as Susie (spelled like this, not Suzy or Susy or any of the other combinations). When I was getting my PhD, I decided “Dr. Susie” didn’t sound like a respectable biomedical researcher, so I went back to my original name and have kept with that.

My parents would still call me Susie, as would my brothers and sisters. My classmates in college all knew me as Susie, although my colleagues in graduate school and beyond, all knew me as Susannah.

The spelling is also important. My husband once wrote out my name as Sussanah when he was just getting to know me. And many people write it with a z, no h or other combinations. I know it’s unique. My father told me that it comes from the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders. This story isn’t always included in the Protestant bible.

Our older daughter, Christine Amalia, is named for one of Hilton’s cousins, Christine Kohl Warnick, and the Amalia was a version of Amelia, named after that amazing airplane pioneer, Amelia Earhart. According to the Internet, Christine means “Follower of Christ” and Amalia is derived from the Germanic word amal meaning “work, activity.” Our younger daughter, Katrin Mattea, was named for one of the women I worked with when we lived in Switzerland. Katrin is a German form of Katherine and means “virginal purity.” Mattea means “gift of God.” When we mentioned this name to our families, lots of people mentioned there being Katherines in the family. Mattea is a feminized version of Mathias, which was my paternal grandfather’s name.

We were also considering Ellen instead of Katrin for our second daughter. When she was born, we took a family vote — my husband, daughter Christine (who was 4 at the time) and me, and Katrin won out.

My husband Hilton’s name means a town on a hill, and the Baxter is an old term for a baker. Sharing a name with an international hotel chain has never helped him with accommodations while traveling.

Titles also can be important. You may not know, but there are at least three different titles for faculty on college or university campuses. If a faculty member is hired on something called tenure-track, they are usually given the title of assistant professor. They work five to seven years to gain the recognition for their research, develop skills as a teacher and participate in various committees and activities to serve the campus and their profession (their service responsibilities). If assistant professors have been successful in those things, they are promoted to associate professor, or tenured.

There’s a lot of pressure to get tenure, as often it’s not just the university colleagues that weigh in, but also those at other institutions who provide a letter commenting on the suitability for the faculty member to be promoted. Once you are tenured at many institutions, you can’t be fired except for major misdeeds or the closing of a campus or department. If you don’t meet that milestone of being promoted to associate professor, you are likely out of a job and need to leave the college or university.

The next stage isn’t required to do, has a variable time-line, and usually has an even higher level of research and service expectations. This stage took me about 11 years to reach, and it also put me under a lot of pressure. If you’re successful, you become professor (sometimes called “full professor”). If you’re not promoted at this stage, you can stay at the campus as an associate professor. Again, people from outside of the campus are recruited to comment on your materials and your suitability to be promoted. I am currently a professor of biology. 

I am also the associate dean of research and outreach. The associate dean is an administrative title, indicating at least a portion of my activities on campus are spent doing things to support aspects of the university instead of doing teaching. It is generally a higher position than an assistant dean, although below a dean. The chancellor of our campus, Dr. John Mason, is actually considered the dean of the Penn State campus at Harrisburg. He is my current boss.

In my position as the associate dean of research and outreach, I promote research on campus. I’ve done this in two ways — by telling people on campus and in the community about the research our faculty do (look back at several of my past columns) and by helping those faculty to get money to do their research. Some of that money comes through my office, some from other parts of Penn State University, and a lot of it comes from the state or federal government. For the latter, think of the National Institutes of Health or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I’ve loved my job, working with faculty in all kinds of creative and scholarly areas. Recently, I have decided to step down from my administrative position and return to the faculty. It was a hard decision for me although the right one given a variety of things.

I’m looking forward to focusing my energies and interests in other areas including teaching the phenomenal students on our campus about the wonders of biology. I look forward to continuing this monthly column, just likely with some different topics than I’ve had before.

The change in my title will start on July 1, just in time for me to take the two-week trip to Alaska with my family to celebrate Katrin’s graduation. More about that later this summer.

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at