Jo Rae Wright, former dean of the Duke University Graduate School and professor of cell biology, medicine and pediatrics, died Wednesday morning after a years-long battle with breast cancer. She was 56.
A cell biologist, Wright's research had been crucial to understanding how surfactant, a slimy coating inside the lungs, protects the lung from airborne infections.
Wright was also a devoted teacher and mentor, which led to her administrative career at Duke. She stepped down as dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education in October because of her battle with breast cancer, although she continued to teach full-time and run her lab.
"Jo Rae's death is tragic; she will be missed by so many and in so many ways," said Duke Provost Peter Lange. "She was an outstanding researcher, an excellent teacher and mentor, a wise, patient, determined and resourceful leader. But above all, she was a wonderful person who brought light into the days of all those whom she met, whether through work or socially. She was my colleague and my friend and I will miss her deeply, as will so many others in our community."
Wright joined the Duke faculty in 1993 as an associate professor and soon began working to develop programs to provide graduate students with training in "survival skills," such as how to give professional presentations, interact with mentors and pursue careers. She was honored twice with the Excellence in Basic Science Teaching Award at Duke.
In part because of these efforts, Wright was appointed associate dean for graduate programs in 2000 and then vice dean of basic sciences in the medical school in 2002. She became dean of the Graduate School in 2006, which entailed overseeing the recruitment and training of more than 7,700 students pursuing graduate and professional degrees at Duke.
She maintained her research program as well, receiving the American Physiological Society's Walter B. Cannon Award for lifetime achievement in 2005 and becoming president of the 18,000-member American Thoracic Society in 2008.
A native of Clarksburg, W.Va., Wright had thought she'd be a guidance counselor during her undergraduate years at West Virginia University (WVU). But a summer job as a lab technician working with lung tissue at West Virginia Medical Center changed all that.
"I like working with people," she said in a 2009 interview. "But when I got that lab job, it was a revelation. I've been fascinated with the lung ever since because I think it's such a critically important interface with the environment. We inhale about 10,000 liters of air each day. ... How we do that without getting sick amazes me," Wright said.
After earning a Ph.D. in physiology from WVU, Wright followed that question to the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), where she did a post-doctoral fellowship under one of the leading lung researchers in the country, Dr. John A. Clements. She then worked in UCSF's Cardiovascular Research Institute before joining Duke in 1993 as an associate professor.
"Jo Rae was an inspirational mentor and friend to huge numbers of graduate students, postdocs and faculty members," said Sally Kornbluth, Duke's vice dean for basic science. "Although her incisive intellect and administrative savvy distinguished her as a top administrator and scientist, it was really her gracious personality, warmth and ability to find humor in even the most pressured situations that made her such a wonderful colleague and friend. We're going to miss her tremendously."
On Dec. 8, 2011, Duke announced the creation of the Jo Rae Wright Fellowship for Outstanding Women in Science, which will annually recognize one Ph.D. student in the biomedical sciences and one in the natural sciences whose research shows particular creativity and promise.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.