At a young age, Diane Jacobs was made to feel different because she had an innate “intellectual curiosity” that made her want to learn how things worked and figure out ways to make them work better.
“In high school we used to take interest tests and in those days there were certain things that were assigned for males and certain things that were assigned to females. I liked the sciences and my teachers would get all bent out of shape because I was interested in things that had been assigned to the boys,” she recalls.
“I always thought it was a bit strange and I was a bit different, but it didn’t bother me because my parents and the occasional teacher supported me.”
That curious young girl grew up to earn a Ph.D. in bacteriology from Harvard University and become a leading research scientist in microbiology and immunology. And a few days ago, she retired from her position as professor of microbiology and a founding faculty member at the UCF College of Medicine.
“In high school I was always the brain, and of course at that age, boys didn’t like girls that were smarter than they are, but that didn’t bother me,” she said. “Having them like me was not important.” Dr. Jacobs’ pursuit of science caused her to quickly become accustomed to being the lone or one of few women pursuing the subject. She recalls her senior year in high school in Panama – her father was sent there to work temporarily – when she was one of two girls among a much larger group of boys who signed up for a career talk on space exploration at a nearby Air Force base.
“I remember the male presenter was telling us about plans to go to the moon and he looked over at us girls and said ‘Of course, the young ladies would prefer to look at the moon than go to the moon.’ And we just sat there looking at each other, because we didn’t know what to say.”
Those experiences propelled Dr. Jacobs to be a pioneer. She was the first female tenured faculty in the Department of Microbiology at the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and in 1994, the first female to ascend to the vice president level at UCF.
“I was more self-conscious,” she says of her historic appointment at UCF. “You’re always aware of the fact that you’re either a role model or standing out in some way in that position and it can affect your behavior. You can self-censor, or speak up in the wrong way. But if you get knocked down enough you learn to get up gracefully and become more comfortable in your role.”
As vice president in charge of research and graduate studies at UCF, she created the Office of Graduate Studies, and later held several leadership positions including chair of the Department of Health Professions and interim chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology.
With her wealth of experience in higher education and administration, Dr. Jacobs joined the College of Medicine in 2008, a year before the charter class matriculated and when the college operated in a single classroom in Research Park at the UCF main campus.
“It was like a start-up, you know, everybody did everything and somehow it always came out right in the end,” she recalled. “All the faculty members had to do multiple things, because were a small group and so everybody was sitting on a whole variety of committees and preparing for accreditation.”
“I think most of us felt like we were just making it up as we went along,” she quipped. “Even though we had clear guidelines on what we needed, everything was new. Every process had to be developed and implemented and then revised if things didn’t go right the first time.”
In 2010, she welcomed the M.D. program’s move to the brand new medical education building at Medical City. “It was a long way away and it was very isolated, but we had everything we needed here and it was just a matter of getting to work,” she said.
Dr. Jacobs spent the last eight years contributing to the development of the curriculum and has watched it grow and evolve as the M.D. program reaches full enrollment in August. Remarking on its successes, she pointed out, “In addition to getting accredited, you know you’ve been successful when your graduates get good residencies. We’ve graduated four classes and they’ve all gone on prepared to have successful careers of their own.”
Of all of her contributions at the med school, she is most proud of serving for four years as director for the Focused Inquiry and Research Experience (FIRE) module – a mandatory two-year research program designed to develop a “spirit of inquiry” in tomorrow’s physicians.
“It has been very rewarding watching the FIRE module grow over the years, including seeing a number of students get invited to present their research at major national conferences each year,” she said.
“In the time I spent with the FIRE module I came to realize that the main function of the course is to enable students to develop critical thinking skills which are really important for every physician in the practice of medicine. Whether or not students actually engage in research after graduation, they will be expected to read medical literature and stay up to date on the latest research in order to practice the best possible medicine.”
She hopes the college will create a student research office to provide support for FIRE projects and also assist third- and fourth-year students who want to continue to do research.
After she retires this summer, Dr. Jacobs will continue to assist the College of Medicine with admissions interviews and the Practice of Medicine module. As someone who braved the odds and pursued her passion for science, Dr. Jacobs is grateful that today there are more options and fewer barriers for women but laments that society as a whole has not completely changed.
“I still hear about girls being told by their fathers not to study math. We’re getting there slowly, but sadly it’s not everybody,” she said. “A woman who has ambitions may still find herself being in an environment or in a culture where she might not be supported. But I would say to her find a way to do it. Look for people to support you, find good role models, be engaged and ask for help from others when you can.”