Idea collector

Biggs has a blast overseeing undergraduate research

Henry Biggs, Ph.D., associate dean in Arts & Sciences and director of undergraduate research, is a bit of a Renaissance man.

Born in St. Louis, Biggs earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin from Harvard University, traveled in Germany and France, swam the English Channel, released three rap CDs under the moniker Headmess, completed a business degree at night with three children at home and is attending law school. Biggs also is adviser to the Thurtene Carnival, fluent in three languages and completed a 50-mile run at 12,000 feet with no map or aid stations.

Henry Biggs, Ph.D., associate dean in Arts & Sciences and director of undergraduate research, examines the presentation of senior Matt Riedel, a psychology and biology double major in Arts & Sciences, during the spring Undergraduate Research Symposium. Riedel’s project was on the link between aerobic exercise and increased cognitive performance and reduced stress. Biggs organizes the biannual symposium. “This is probably the most fun and most rewarding job I could have,” Biggs says.

And with all that on his resume, the focus of Biggs’ passion these days is something a bit more down-to-earth — undergraduate research.

Biggs was asked in 2004 to explore the possibility of an undergraduate research office on campus. The first Undergraduate Research Symposium, held that year, featured eight students presenting their work to a small group of supporters. The most recent symposium was held April 28 at the Saint Louis Art Museum and included work by more than 170 students from each of the Danforth Campus’ five schools.

To say that undergraduate research at the University has blossomed under Biggs is an understatement.

“I think the growth in presentations at the symposium is exciting but perhaps a bit misleading because most of the research has always been there; I have just been able to help to collect it,” Biggs says.

“This is probably the most fun and most rewarding job I could have,” he says. “I feel I’m well suited to it. It’s an opportunity to learn in all sorts of different areas. I really enjoy the different academic disciplines and want to understand them more, so it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven with this job. And students constantly present new ideas about things that matter to the world.”

This year’s symposium featured a robotics presentation, a peanut-butter maker and a hybrid car. It also included presentations on sculpture, dance, film, bookbinding, art, business, engineering and science.

“There is no question that people are becoming more aware and getting more involved in undergraduate research,” Biggs says. “And I’m excited about that, but, because of my background in the humanities, I also get excited about seeing more and more projects coming out of social science and humanities.”

From deep snow to St. Louis, Mo.

After growing up in St. Louis, Biggs earned a bachelor’s degree in classics from Harvard University. He then studied French for two years at the Sorbonne, followed by another year in Germany.

In Paris, he was dared to swim the English Channel.

An avid long-distance runner since high school, Biggs had completed a triathlon before heading to Europe. He thought the 2.5-mile swim was the easiest part. When someone dared and then double-dared him to swim the Channel, he jumped at the chance.

“The unfortunate thing was that I spent three hours a day looking at the bottom of a pool training for the Channel and another five hours studying. I didn’t get to see much of Paris,” Biggs jokes.

The Biggs family: Henry Biggs; wife, Theresa; and children (from left) Charlie, 10; Jack, 14; Thomas, 3; and Laura, 12.

After returning from Europe, Biggs was hired as a teaching assistant in French at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned a master’s degree and doctorate in Romance linguistics, the latter in 1996.

He met his wife, Theresa, at UCLA before accepting his first job at Houghton College, near Buffalo, N.Y. He was asked to chair the French department, which he enjoyed. The winters were a different story.

“Theresa is from San Diego,” he says. “The first Thanksgiving in New York, we got 37 inches of snow over two days at Thanksgiving. Needless to say, those years were not her favorite, and she still hasn’t let me live it down.”

After four years at Houghton — where he helped expand the French program from two majors to 20 — he came to WUSTL in 1999.

James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, knew of Biggs through Biggs’ family. Biggs’ grandmother attended WUSTL, and his parents both earned doctorates from the University.

“Jim (McLeod) and Sharon Stahl, associate dean in the College of Arts & Sciences, were aware that I was toiling in the winter wilderness, and they took mercy on me,” Biggs says. “Theresa still brings flowers to them every year in gratitude!”

One of Biggs’ first duties as assistant dean was to help start the Praxis Program, a curriculum that combines the analytical reading, writing and thinking skills of a liberal arts education with other marketable skills, like a foreign language.

Biggs also was asked by McLeod to help move student course evaluations online.

“That’s been very exciting,” Biggs says. “Last year, we were able to get a donor to give $1 per online evaluation to Big Brothers Big Sisters; this semester, we have a similar incentive program for, a group that works to help those suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Henry Biggs

Titles: Associate dean in Arts & Sciences and director of undergraduate research

Hobbies: Running. Biggs has qualified for the Boston Marathon three times, completed 11 marathons and finished his first 50-mile ultramarathon in August.

Biggest dare ever completed: Biggs swam the English Channel in 1988.

Did you know: Biggs has released three rap CDs under the name Headmess.

“We have been able to raise over $50,000 this year for charity through the evaluations system, which gives a whole new side to the program. It’s a great way for us to engage the civic spirit of our students and give back to the community at the same time,” he says.

Always looking for new ways to help students learn, Biggs began turning puzzles for students into rap lyrics during his “Rap of Ages” class. That led to CDs and several live, off-campus performances under the name Headmess, though Biggs hasn’t performed in the past five years.

“I was flattered by the attention it all received,” Biggs says, “but, really, it was just another way for me to get through to students and to present the material in what I thought was a more interesting way.”

Biggs says working at the University has been “spectacular.”

“I think I have one of the most ideal bosses in Jim McLeod,” he says. “He’s always been very flexible and has given me different challenges, which keep me off-balance. But I enjoy being asked to do more.”

And doing more he is.

After Jim Burmeister, executive director of University relations and Commencement, stepped down in 2006 following 35 years as adviser to the Thurtene Junior Honorary and Thurtene Carnival, Biggs stepped in. He now helps to plan and supervise the nation’s largest and oldest student-run carnival.

Jill Stratton, associate dean of students and director of residential academic programs, says Biggs has contributed immensely to the undergraduate experience at the University.

“Dean Henry Biggs exudes endless positive energy!” says Stratton, who has worked with Biggs in his role as a faculty associate on the South 40. “From his creative approach to course evaluations to his focus and enthusiasm for undergraduate research, it is a joy to see Henry in action. His commitment to student success inspires and motivates all who come into contact with him.”

Still a student, still a runner

Biggs earned a master’s in business administration degree from WUSTL in 2004, becoming the final member of his family to earn a degree from the University. He now is enrolled in his first year of law school at Saint Louis University.

“I found that the MBA did great things for my understanding of how to work in Arts & Sciences,” Biggs says. “That’s one of the main reasons I’m in law school. Frankly, it’s killing me, and there’s no specific purpose for it, but I know that the knowledge is good to acquire.”

Biggs hopes to earn that degree by 2011.

“It’s better to have law school take a long time so I can spend more time with my kids,” he says.

The couple has four children: Jack, 14; Laura, 12; Charlie, 10; and Thomas, 3.

When Biggs isn’t in school, helping with Thurtene or planning the next symposium, he still enjoys running.

“It’s my meditation,” he says.

He has qualified for the Boston Marathon three times, completed 11 marathons in all and finished his first 50-mile ultramarathon in August.

“I found out the hard way that when super long-distance runners plan a race, they go all out,” Biggs says.

“This race was in Bozeman, Mont., on the Devil’s Backbone Trail at 12,000 feet above sea level. I found out a week before I arrived that it was an unsupported race, meaning there are no aid stations. And it was on an unmarked trail,” he says.

Despite getting lost several times, having to stop to filter water and walking the uphill portions, Biggs finished just short of 16 hours.

“My wife didn’t go with me, so I had to drive myself the hour back to the hotel, and I had a very early flight the next morning. When I got home, I basically stayed in bed for three days,” he says.

What other kind of hobby would you expect from a Renaissance man?