Long before she was dean of the BYU College of Life Sciences, Laura Bridgewater was a ballet dancer with an insatiable desire to make herself and her ballet company better.
At nine years old, she began dancing under Jacqueline Colledge, artistic director of Utah Regional Ballet (now the Utah Metropolitan Ballet). The new company shared a rehearsal space at American Fork’s American Legion Hall with a group of senior citizens, which meant that before any ballet could happen, the carrots and peas strewn on the floor after the seniors’ lunch had to be swept up. “[Bridgewater] would always come early . . . and help me clean up the floor before we’d start,” Colledge remembers.
As years of ballet passed, Bridgewater was constantly looking for ways to do more. “She was always just so hardworking,” says Colledge. “She was always asking me for the next step: ‘How do I get in the next class?’”
Now, Bridgewater is bringing that same what-more-can-I-do attitude to the College of Life Sciences. Bridgewater took the helm of the college in July. She comes with years of experience in leadership. Prior to her appointment as dean, she was an associate academic vice president, the first woman in this position at BYU. After chairing the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology from 2011 to 2014, she served as an associate dean in the College of Life Sciences from 2016 to 2018.
If you ask those who know Bridgewater, they’ll all mention her intelligence first, but what they really want to talk about is her humility and kindness. “I think often she is one of the smartest people in the room,” says daughter Chelsea Waldrop, “but she never makes anyone feel like she’s smarter than them.”
BYU associate academic vice president Brad Neiger agrees. “She is humble and down-to-earth,” he says. “You always feel heard and respected by her. . . . Dr. Bridgewater always has good ideas for the future, . . . without bringing a lot of attention to herself. As good as she is, her modesty is one of her greatest strengths.”
Former student Marlan Walker (MS ’01) remembers Bridgewater’s kindness that went beyond the classroom. “She would have us over to her house [with] her family a lot,” he says. When Walker got married, Bridgewater showed up at his doorstep with a waffle maker in hand, explaining her family’s tradition of waffles every weekend. “It always stuck with us,” says Walker. “You forget about who gave you what, [but] we never forgot about who gave us the waffle maker.”
As the new dean, Bridgewater hopes to build upon the positive legacy of the College of Life Sciences. Her student-focused vision empowers students to make a positive impact in the world. She hopes students “see the breadth of the ways they can contribute, and leave [BYU] feeling a desire and a commitment to make the world a better place.”
Lessons at the Ballet Barre
Bridgewater was raised in American Fork, Utah, the oldest of six kids. She danced ballet from age nine to twenty-two. Seven of those years, she took to the stage as the Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy. Colledge says Bridgewater’s hard work, grace, and humility set her apart. “I never ever in one class or performance felt like she wasn’t giving 150 percent,” says Colledge, who remembers being shocked by the blisters Bridgewater had accumulated on her feet without any sign of complaint.
Bridgewater learned the value of criticism from her years in ballet. Receiving corrections in ballet “means the instructor thinks you’re good. It means you have enough potential that you’re worth correcting,” Bridgewater explained in a talk in March for BYU’s “My Journey as a Scholar of Faith” lecture series. “The things I learned from Jackie Colledge about the importance of precision and working hard and, most importantly, about treasuring corrections [have] influenced every other part of my life in profound ways.”
Winding Road to Science
At BYU, Bridgewater started as an English major, but a talk in her honors colloquium course on the emerging field of gene therapy made her rethink. After the talk, she approached the presenter, Professor Ron Leavitt, to learn which majors could prepare her to work in that field, and she changed her major that day to microbiology. “I really wanted to do something that would always be fascinating,” she says. “It could have gone wildly wrong with so little effort put into researching options and career paths, but it worked out well for me.”
Her path would change again after meeting her future husband, Tim Bridgewater, on a blind date—but he wasn’t the date. He was another guy at the party. They hit it off the night before Tim flew out for job interviews in Washington, DC. Though he got a job offer soon after, he didn’t tell Bridgewater. “He didn’t want to pressure me,” says Bridgewater. “I was only 19 when we met, and he’s between six and seven years older than I am. So he’s thinking, ‘We could get married,’ and I’m thinking, ‘That was a fun date.’”
They dated long distance for a while, until Tim convinced Bridgewater to come to DC for an internship he’d finagled with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She decided to go. “I cannot even express how out of character this was for me,” says Bridgewater, who describes herself as someone who makes a plan and sticks to it. “Gallivanting off to Washington, DC, was entirely outside my frame of reference.”
Before her NIH internship, Bridgewater was a pre-med major: “It seemed like all the smart men in my classes were pre-med, and I thought, ‘I’m as smart as they are so I should be pre-med too.’” But her internship, which combined doing medical rounds with lab work, helped her realize that she was more passionate about research than the clinical side.
After returning to BYU, Bridgewater worked in the lab of cell biology and physiology professor Robert Seegmiller, where she had the opportunity to be first author on an article in a peer-reviewed journal. She married Tim (complete with the carriage from her ballet performance as Cinderella as decoration at her wedding reception), and she made plans for graduate school in DC.
Thanks to her internship and the peer-reviewed article, Bridgewater’s plans changed once more. She applied for a master’s degree at George Washington University, but the director of the genetics program called, offering her GWU’s presidential fellowship, which awarded twice the normal stipend but was only for PhD candidates. “I didn’t want to wait five more years to have kids,” Bridgewater said in her “Scholar of Faith” address. After considering their options, the Bridgewaters decided to move forward with both—pursuing a PhD and starting their family. “By the time I graduated five years later, we had four wonderful children”: Chelsea, Nate, and twins Brandon and Lily (whose middle-name is Jacqueline in honor of Bridgewater’s ballet teacher).
Bridgewater credits her partnership with her husband, family support, and an understanding advisor, Steve Patierno, for successfully earning her PhD. “[Patierno] was a family man and a religious man, and he never objected to my commitment to have a family,” said Bridgewater. “I think it was divine intervention that landed me in his lab of all the options that were available to me.”
Clear Skies at BYU
After finishing her PhD, Bridgewater moved with her family to Houston. She was at home full-time for nine months, worked in a part-time postdoctoral position at the University of Texas Health Science Center for about a year, and then began a full-time postdoc at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
A year before finishing her postdoc, she was invited to apply for a faculty position at BYU. As part of the interviewing process, Bridgewater met with a General Authority. She asked him about something that had been weighing on her mind for years as she pursued her career: “If mothers are supposed to be home with their children, why is BYU even interviewing me?” The General Authority spent 45 minutes answering. “Those minutes changed my life,” said Bridgewater in her March address.
He told her that more than half of Utah’s women with children at the time were in the workforce, but many had low-paying jobs because of their limited education. He shared that many female BYU students thought their only options were to be teachers or nurses, and they needed other role models of the many options available. While working outside the home is certainly not right for every mom, it is right for some women as long as they make family their top priority, which is the case for fathers as well. “The cloud that had been following me around vanished, and it’s never come back,” Bridgewater explained. “For the first time, I was certain that the path I had chosen not only wasn’t wrong, but it was within the covenant path.”
A little boy remarked, "That's not a scientist."
Lily responded fiercely, "Oh, yes that is! That's my mom!"
During her visit, Bridgewater felt like BYU was the place she was supposed to be, and she accepted a professor position there. Though she had never taught before, she quickly learned that she loved teaching. Walker, one of her first master’s students, remembers meeting Bridgewater: “Your first impression of Dr. Bridgewater is that she’s really, really smart. . . . She’s able to take complex ideas and break them down into manageable chunks.” He remembers a book club that Bridgewater created with her students in which they discussed scientific literature. “She would participate full throttle in there. . . . She’d challenge you, . . . but you could also challenge her,” he says. “It was very collegial.”
Bridgewater’s daughter Waldrop remembers growing up in her mother’s lab. “I remember stretching the parafilm all over, like this waxy, stretchy wrap that was really fun to play with,” she says. “It was really cool to see [my mom] in her element.” When eight-year-old Lily was assigned to draw a scientist for a school assignment, she drew her mother. “It was me,” remembers Bridgewater. “My hair, my white lab coat, and she had drawn the autoclave with the round handle . . . and she had a hot plate and a beaker.” A little boy next to Lily saw the picture and remarked, “That’s not a scientist.” Lily responded fiercely, “Oh, yes that is! That’s my mom!” Bridgewater has the picture framed in her office.
A Vision for Students
As she steps into the role of dean, Bridgewater wants to reinforce the strong footing the college already has. She is focusing on four areas.
First, Bridgewater hopes the college helps “our students to develop faith and a rock-solid commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This can happen through frank conversations with students about their questions of faith. In an August address to the College of Life Sciences faculty, Bridgewater shared how she faced doubt after the completion of the Human Genome Project. Counter to her expectations from reading the Book of Mormon, Native American people did not show genetic ancestry from the Middle East. “I was just slammed. . . . It’s a terrible feeling,” remembered Bridgewater. “What I ended up doing is deciding to just wait, keep doing what I’m doing. Study, learn, see what happens.” Since then, she’s found understanding as she’s learned more about population genetics and has found evidence in the Book of Mormon of other people living in the Americas besides Lehi’s family.
Students “should not be thinking they have to choose between scientific truths and religious truths,” said Bridgewater in her faculty address. “They need to know that the gospel of Jesus Christ encompasses all truth. It will all fit together. If it doesn’t seem to now, it’s because we’re missing a piece.” Professors can be examples of how to face uncertainty. “We need to model humility and patience in the face of ambiguity or when there are questions for which we don’t yet have clear answers.”
Bridgewater invited faculty to look for ways to exemplify disciple-scholars. “With students, we need to be modeling lives of integrity,” where a person’s religious side isn’t divided from their professional side, she explained. “We need to show them committed, covenant-keeping scientists—people who are immersed in data and evidence who have also chosen to be committed . . . to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
BYU is my home.
Second, Bridgewater hopes to expand opportunities for experiential learning—student participation in labs, study abroad programs, and internships. These experiences are often the highlight of the college experience. “This is so important because these experiences snowball,” Bridgewater told faculty, sharing how her internship with the NIH and her first-author publication from her lab work at BYU were integral to her being accepted into grad school and being offered a competitive fellowship, which in turn led to subsequent opportunities. Experiential learning sets students up for success after BYU.
The third priority is to maintain a culture of belonging that ensures experiential learning opportunities are accessible to every student, including those “who might otherwise self-select out” because they are nervous to talk to a professor, don’t think they are qualified, or don’t think they can afford it. Work in this area will require looking for ways to foster more belonging within the college, Bridgewater explained. “[We must] maintain a culture in the college where every single person is treated with dignity and respect—every single person, every student, every employee.”
And fourth, Bridgewater told faculty, “I want us to communicate the value of our research to the world.” “Our stakeholders should see how our research changes the lives of the students who participate and makes a difference for good in the world.”
Bridgewater’s passion in these priorities comes from her love for the Y. “BYU is my home,” she says. “It’s more than a job. There’s a sense of a calling here at BYU. You get to work with some amazing people, and you touch the lives of remarkable students. I love that.”
She hopes life sciences grads leave BYU with a firm commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ and a desire to make a difference for good in the world. “I would like each of our graduates to understand that as they continue to develop their own unique interests and gifts in a spirit of humility and consecration, they will become ever more powerful instruments in the hands of the Lord.”