Sally C. Morton took the helm of the Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise on Feb. 1, 2021 as executive vice president. In this role, she advances research, entrepreneurship, innovation, strategic partnerships and international development at the university.
“I have been very lucky to join this incredible team,” said Morton. “I always like to work at places that I am proud to be a part of and where I can learn from the people around me. I saw the ASU charter and knew this is a place that I would like to join because the charter really resonated with me. The value of inclusiveness is especially important in the Knowledge Enterprise to ensure that we are conducting the highest quality and broadest research in service of our community.”
Morton is a statistician whose career spans multiple academic and research institutions, using statistics and data science to address critical health challenges. Before coming to ASU, she served as dean of Virginia Tech's College of Science and interim director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Morton is also a past president of the American Statistical Association (ASA) and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Though Morton’s career in statistics is world-renowned, here are seven fun things you may not know about the first woman to lead ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise:
1. Morton is a math nerd at heart
Morton didn’t always know she wanted to be a statistician, but she always had a knack for math and solving those pesky word problems her teachers would give her.
“Even as an undergraduate student in math, I did not know what a statistician actually did,” admitted Morton. “It was not until I interacted with a faculty member, who was a famous health statistician, that I discovered how statistics could be used to answer really important questions about the world around us.”
Morton’s encounter with this mentor left a lifelong impression, leading her to pursue graduate study and develop a fruitful career in statistics.
“This is why our faculty interaction with students is so important,” said Morton. “I got so lucky to be taught by and mentored by this teacher, as many of us who find our calling through faculty do. If not for that aha moment, I do not know where I would be or what I would be doing.”
2. Her favorite number is 4
As a lover of all things math, Morton thinks that everyone should have a favorite number.
According to Morton, she’s loved the number four from a very young age.
“I decided the number four was my favorite when I was four years old,” she said. “I still like it because four is two plus two, and it is also two squared. It is kind of the perfect number in that way.” Added Morton, “Now as a statistician, I think it is interesting to hear what people’s favorite numbers are and why.”
3. Her colleagues’ and students’ successes are her greatest professional passion
“There is a great sense of accomplishment I feel when I see the people around me succeed,” said Morton.
Recently, one of Morton’s colleagues announced that he was promoted and was taking a step up in his position.
“When people pass by you and move up, those are my proudest moments because I know what that person is capable of accomplishing in their new role,” she said.
Having mentored students, faculty and staff across a range of disciplines at several different institutions, many of Morton’s mentees have gone on to pursue successful careers in health care, academia and industry.
“When I write recommendations for students, or give guidance to colleagues, and they let me know of their acceptance into graduate school, or a job opportunity, it is so rewarding,” said Morton. “The fact that I am able to be a part of their journeys and make a small difference in their lives is really wonderful. Those are the moments that keep me going.”
4. She believes variety really is the spice of life
“A famous statistician John Tukey said that the best thing about being a statistician is that we get to play in everyone else’s backyard,” said Morton. “In my career I have loved the fact that I have the opportunity to learn about all kinds of problems and work with all different types of people.”
Morton’s career in health statistics has led her around the world to investigate various problems such as health disparities, racial bias and the death penalty, mental health issues, and homelessness.
In addition to travelling for her work, Morton likes to live in different places. . Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and California are just a few of the states Morton has called home over the past couple decades.
“Despite all my moving around, I have never lived in the Southwest,” said Morton. “This is a very different place for me in terms of the area physically being a desert, the indigenous culture and the distinct history this state has.”
Morton is excited to begin exploring the people and places Arizona has to offer once the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic subside.
“I am all about exploration,” she said. “I am open to new experiences and want to get out there and learn everything I can. For now, that means going on hikes that folks recommend to me and learning about people’s research via Zoom.”
5. Morton is diving into life at ASU
Ideally, Morton would have liked to be taking walks around campus to learn more about the university and the faculty, staff and students.
“But it has been a bit hard to do that right now,” said Morton. “Instead, I have been using my swims to try and get that same interactive experience.”
Several times a week, Morton makes her way to the Sun Devil Fitness Complex to complete her laps at the pool.
“I am out there in my lane, doing my thing alongside other Sun Devils. After I am done, I talk to the lifeguards and other swimmers, trying to get to know them and learn more about ASU. I just love it,” said Morton. “The weather is perfect for swimming and there is truly so much you can do and discover here.”
6. Her family is front and center
Throughout her career, Morton has made sure to acknowledge her personal accomplishments as well as her professional ones.
“For me personally, family is without a doubt what I am most proud of,” said Morton. “I am a spouse, a mother and a grandmother. It truly is the hardest job I have ever had.”
“I am proud of my children and what they have accomplished in addition to the relationships that I have been able to build with them,” she said.
Morton admits that she is facing new and harder challenges now in the pandemic than ever before.
“I feel the challenges that families are going through right now in my own home,” she said. “I have a child who started college this year online and it is just really hard all around.”
Since her family has not yet made the move from Virginia to Tempe, Morton sympathizes with all those who cannot be with their loved ones due to distance and safety precautions.
“It has been hard not having them here, but I am excited to have them come join me and explore everything Arizona has to offer together,” said Morton.
7. Morton loves a motivating mission statement
“I am highly mission oriented. So, a good tagline or mission statement really gets me excited about a place,” said Morton. “I remember the mission or mantras of every place I have worked.”
When she first stepped foot on ASU’s campus, Morton found herself drawn to ASU’s title as the “#1 university in innovation” and the charter outlining a commitment to service and inclusivity.
“The charter is really owned by people here,” said Morton. “It is aspirational, so it is something to work toward. I am very committed to fulfilling the tenets of our mission.”
Morton aims to continue supporting the innovative work pioneered by ASU researchers and students, while pushing the boundaries of what has already been accomplished.
“We have a goal of $1 billion in research expenditures,” said Morton. “But, to me, there is a much more important metric than dollars. We want to keep increasing the positive impact that our research can have on Arizona, the nation and the world.”
Morton affirms that ASU must continue to foster an environment where research is collaborative, inclusive of multiple disciplines and focused on solving the world’s grand challenges.
“I am honored to be a part of continuing to drive the Knowledge Enterprise forward,” she said. “We will motivate and support to ensure that we can all do our work better, faster and more nimbly.”
How would Morton define innovation? Well, the new executive VP sees innovation as more of a social way of operating than a technological product.
“Thinking of new ways of doing things, putting ideas or resources together in ways you would not have done before — that is innovation,” said Morton. “At ASU, I have been learning from the faculty, staff and students that innovation is a social mindset, a culture that is grown and thrives here.”