Marcia France joined DKU as dean of undergraduate affairs in 2018 and is one of the founders of the DKU Philharmonic Orchestra
By Reika Shimomura ’23
Marcia France has had a passion for classical music since taking up the flute at elementary school. Wherever her career has taken her, from MIT to Scotland to Paris, she has found a band or orchestra to join.
At Duke Kunshan, for the first time, she got to start one from scratch.
“Even back when I was interviewing at DKU, I knew that I really wanted to start some kind of a musical group here,” said France, who joined as inaugural dean of undergraduate studies in August 2018. “I had hoped to build an orchestra in the first year, and I made sure there was money in the budget for it, such as for buying instruments.”
Despite the intense workload associated with launching an undergraduate program at a brand-new university in China, France used what spare time she had to foster a musical community on campus, seeking out fellow musicians in Kunshan and beyond.
Eventually, she met Yue Cheng, a conductor and internationally recognized oboist based in Shanghai, now a visiting professor at Duke Kunshan. Together, they formed the DKU Philharmonic Orchestra, which made its debut performance on Nov. 10, 2019, with musicians drawn from students, faculty and staff. Joining them in this concert was the NYU Shanghai Chamber Orchestra, also founded by Yue.
The disruption caused by Covid-19 meant it took another year before Duke Kunshan’s orchestra was able to perform live again. In December 2020, the group returned with “Unsung Heroes,” a concert to celebrate all those who had faced the global pandemic with a high degree of professionalism, strength and resilience. The repertoire included “Hua Hao Yue Yuan” (Blooming Flowers, Full Moon) and the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Georges Bizet.
“Music has been a really important part of my life. It’s challenged me,” France said. “Like in any community, being in an orchestra is about connecting with others – the conductor, fellow players, the audience; it’s about creating harmony.”
Visiting professor and oboist Yue Cheng conducted the first two concerts by the DKU Philharmonic Orchestra
In a way, France’s musical experience was fine preparation for the diversity at Duke Kunshan, where faculty, students and staff come from more than 60 countries, as well as different cultures and educational backgrounds. Like in an orchestra, diversity plays an essential role in creating the university’s distinct campus atmosphere.
However, while diversity certainly creates many opportunities, it can bring challenges, too.
For example, one of the most difficult aspects in the first year of the undergraduate program was ensuring that all students, regardless of background, were able to adapt quickly to the university’s distinct liberal arts curriculum.
The content covered by China’s national college entrance exam, known as the gaokao, is different from that of AP, international baccalaureate, SATs, GCSEs, and other exams. Even the gaokao can differ regionally. This meant that creating a first-year course like Integrated Science – which incorporates biology, chemistry and physics – that suited students of different levels and abilities required innovative thinking.
The outcome was a unique learning environment.
“How students from all over the world interact and work together define the global nature of DKU,” France said, adding that having an international faculty also brings a wide variety of teaching styles.
When she first heard about Duke Kunshan, France was associate provost and the John T. Herwick, M.D. Professor of Chemistry at Washington and Lee University (W&L) in the United States. She had a long-held interest in global education, having run study abroad programs in Scotland and Italy, as well as hosting visiting overseas students, so the opportunity to be part of a new joint-venture university in China piqued her interest.
After doing more research, she learned about its goal to attract a highly diverse student body and its interdisciplinary approach. She also met with faculty members and staff and discovered that they shared her passion for international education.
“I didn’t think I’d really end up here, but the students and faculty who decide to come to this startup university and be part of its early development are a remarkable group,” she said. “All the pieces just came together and the opportunity to work with the people in this community got me really excited.”
Musicians including students, faculty and staff at DKU perform at the orchestra’s “Unsung Heroes” concert in December 2020
Lighting the way for others
While music has proved an inspirational pastime, France’s career has been driven by her passion for both scientific research and teaching.
France majored in chemistry during her undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she did research under 2001 Nobel laureate K. Barry Sharpless. She went on to get a master’s degree, also in chemistry, from Yale University before receiving a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Her doctoral research specialized in the development of ruthenium catalysts for olefin metathesis and ring-opening metathesis polymerization. Her mentor, Robert H. Grubbs, cited the research in his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
In addition, she’s served as a visiting research scientist at DuPont, Stanford University, Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Paris.
Surprisingly, France says she had no interest in science until she reached high school, where she began studying with an “absolutely amazing” chemistry teacher. “It was a fantastic experience. He was truly inspiring,” she said, explaining that he helped her comprehend even the most difficult of concepts.
Years later, she was able to pay that forward.
During her graduate studies at Yale and Caltech, France found that she enjoyed working as a teaching assistant more than spending long hours in the lab. She realized she too had the power to spark excitement in science, just like her high school teacher.
“It’s really important to have someone who can inspire you,” she said, adding that she encourages everyone at Duke Kunshan – students, teachers and colleagues – to light the way for others.
By playing our unique parts and fostering openness, understanding and inclusion, each person can contribute to building a global community of unity and strength, France added.
Now, that would be music to everyone’s ears.
To complement the nontraditional liberal arts curriculum, Duke Kunshan supports a wide variety of extracurricular programs and activities that encourage students to pursue interests outside the classroom. Learn more at Campus Engagement.