Newest and largest Blaze Leadership Academy class gathers pandemic lessons

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rep bla spring 21 award final 550pxWhat has the pandemic taught us?

That is a big question — and a perfect project for the largest-ever cohort of participants in Blaze Leadership Academy, the university's flagship leadership development program for high-potential faculty and staff.

The 30 members of this spring's class, which ran from January to May, were a 50/50 mix of staff and faculty from across campus. (See a full list of participants below.) Their experience, like much else at the university during the past year-plus, was virtual, mainly conducted via group and one-on-one Zoom meetings. But that does not mean that they were lacking in interaction, participants say.

Even as they were leading through the pandemic, participants were encouraged to reflect on lessons they had learned and to share those lessons with fellow participants.

Key questions included:

  • What made our students, faculty and staff successful during this time?
  • How can we expand on this while still working toward our strategic plan and incorporating our Shared Values?

'An amazing and meaningful experience'

Tashara Walker, director of the Office of Student Services in the School of Education, said the Blaze experience was filled with "rich conversations.” During one meeting, participants broke out into groups to consider ways to improve student, faculty and staff engagement at UAB. "Our group discussed how we could improve practices and support student experience across campus," Walker said. She had the chance to share how the School of Education was moving to diversify access to resources in recognition of many of the situations brought to light by the pandemic. “This included capitalizing on the latest technologies — video conferencing and eSignature platforms — to create innovative approaches to engage and support students virtually,” Walker said. In addition, the school had made laptops available to students who did not have access and worked with Student Affairs, Enrollment Management and staff in the Collat School of Business to create a resource list for students that faculty and staff could share with students needing assistance.

“Our group also discussed initiatives such as microcredential programs that UAB could implement to motivate students to progress to graduation,” and the development of clearly defined pathways for students transferring back to UAB after spending time at community colleges closer to home during the pandemic, Walker said. "There were a lot of things we took for granted that the pandemic made clear were real issues for our students. We have taken this opportunity to leverage what we learned to enhance the student experience in new ways and meet students where they are."

Next Blaze Leadership Academy class recruiting now

Nominations are open now through July 30 for the 2021-22 class. Senior leaders should provide their nominations to Susan Coan by July 30. Learn more about eligibility and requirements here.

As a part of the first all-virtual Blaze class, Walker thought she might miss the networking and relationship-building opportunities that are traditionally a major part of the program. But "it was an amazing and meaningful experience," she said. "Gerriann Fagan and her group in Human Resources did a great job of creating those interactions in new ways. Before you begin you think you know all about UAB, but after talking and working with faculty and staff from all over campus, you begin to see just how complex this organization is and the variety of the stakeholders we serve and support."

"It was really interesting to learn new perspectives across different roles and units," said Annee Cook, director of Marketing at UAB. "Participating in the Blaze Leadership Academy was a rewarding experience and provided an opportunity to connect with colleagues about something proactive and not focused on COVID."

Hands-on skills and mentorship

Participants say that Blaze taught them hands-on skills that they were able to implement in their jobs right away.

Throughout their time in the Blaze program, participants used several tools to improve as leaders. These included 360-degree assessments from colleagues, supervisors and supervisees and the Birkman personality assessment. "I learned a lot about myself through the assessments and through the eyes of other people — specifically my strengths and weaknesses," said Terri Coco, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics. "I wish I had done these assessments in the beginning of my career and throughout." Coco said she also found that "talking with other leaders who have similar experiences but in different departments and positions was helpful. It was reassuring to know all of us have challenges and successes." 

Participants also had the opportunity to be matched with UAB mentors. Alicia Rohan, director of Public Relations in the Office of University Relations, was mentored by Lynn Stover Nichols, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Nursing. Feedback from Nichols "consisted of real-world examples, resources and strategies to achieve the next level of leadership and how to improve overall as a professional," Rohan said. Nichols and Rohan also "took a deep dive into feedback that came in from my 360 reviews, Birkman assessment and DISC assessment," Rohan said. "Her insight was key to my growth as a professional and continues to help me apply the concepts of Blaze Leadership into everyday life."

Sharing lessons with senior leaders

But Blaze participants didn't just learn — as front-line leaders who had already spent more than a year responding and managing through a pandemic, they had the opportunity to share lessons with senior leaders on what worked and future challenges. "As a young leader, you are often just sitting in the background at meetings and don't have much chance to contribute," Walker said. "We were encouraged to share what we had learned for the benefit of senior leaders and the university as a whole."

Visit the Learning & Development site to discover other leadership programs and learning opportunities at

Cook participated in the seven-person group TBD: The Blaze Dynamic, along with faculty from the schools of Education, Health Professions and Business and staff from INTO UAB and the Office of the Vice President for Research. "We could all pull from our different experiences and conversations” to identify crucial lessons, Cook said.

The group identified three leadership lessons:

  • Do less and obsess — push back on the urge to do "more, more, more" to gain clarity on the most important tasks and “focus on the projects that move the needle the most,” the group suggested.
  • Mastering work with others — leaders should encourage participation by all members of their teams, particularly the “quiet voices” who often go unheard in meetings; they can also avoid unnecessary meetings and unfocused collaborations by creating written charges for workgroups that clearly articulate the goals and rewards to be gained.
  • Mastering your work and life — the key to work-life balance is not simply to work fewer hours, but to apply the same attention to detail and purposeful focus to families and personal interests that leaders apply to their jobs.

Next Blaze Leadership Academy class recruiting now

Nominations are open now through July 30 for the 2021-22 class. Candidates are nominated by their senior leader (VP or dean). If you have suggestions for a nominee in your school/unit, please let your dean or VP know. Senior leaders should provide their nominations to Susan Coan by July 30.

Nominees will receive a link to a survey application that must be completed within two weeks of receipt. Applications are reviewed by a selection committee using the following criteria:

  • Experience: Candidate manages a team or a major program and has been at UAB for at least one year.
  • Capability: Candidate performs exceptionally well in his or her current role.
  • Potential: Candidate is seen as someone who will continue to advance at UAB and has demonstrated a commitment to growth and development opportunities.
  • Collaborative Role: Candidate's broader exposure to UAB would enable him or her to be more effective.

Learn more about what to expect in the Blaze Leadership Academy on the Human Resources site here.

Congratulations to the Blaze Leadership Academy spring 2021 cohort:

Mary Ann Bodine Al-Sharif, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Human Studies

School of Education

Kyle Bailey

Director of Student Experience


Elizabeth Barstow, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy; Director of the Graduate Certificate in Low Vision Rehabilitation

School of Health Professions

James Byrd, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Accounting and Finance; Director, Masters in Accounting Program

Collat School of Business

Olivio Clay, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology

College of Arts and Sciences

Teresa Coco, M.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics

School of Medicine

Annee Cook

Director of Marketing

University Relations

Jill Deaver

Assistant Professor and Head of Lister Hill Library Reference Department

UAB Libraries

Jamie Elliott

Admin Director II, Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology

Joint Health Sciences

Camille Epps

Senior Director of Development

College of Arts and Sciences

Paulette Evans, Ph.D.

Clinical Instructor/Director, Department of Curriculum & Instruction

School of Education

Kamilah Frison

Director of Administrative and Fiscal Affairs

Office of Vice President for Research

Michael Hill

Associate Director, Conflict of Interest Review Board

Kochurani Jacob, Ph.D.

Assistant Director, Research Health and Safety, Department of Environmental Health and Safety

UAB Facilities

Ann Marie Karaki

Program Director III, Continuing Dental Education

School of Dentistry

John Knight, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Urology

School of Medicine

Charitharth Vivek Lal, M.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics

School of Medicine

Jaret Langston, Ph.D.

Applications Architect II Manager - Enterprise Applications Solutions - Research Support

Information Technology

Jorge Lopez, Ph.D.

Associate Professor/Program Co-Director, Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences

School of Health Professions

Christopher Minnix, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of English; Director of Signature Core Curriculum

College of Arts and Sciences

Arie Nakhmani, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering

School of Engineering

Pam Paustian, Ph.D.

Executive Director and Associate Professor, Office of eLearning & Professional Studies


Alicia Rohan

Director of Public Relations

University Relations

John Shacka, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology

School of Medicine

Kay Simon

Director, University Events


Victoria Smith

Associate Director of First Year Experience, Undergraduate Student Success and Retention

Student Affairs

Robert Sorge, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology

College of Arts and Sciences

Laura Tull

Director of Transfer Student Success

Collat School of Business

Tashara Walker

Director, Certification Officer, Office of Student Services

School of Education

Jeffrey Wickliffe, Ph.D.

Professor and Chair, Department of Environmental Health Sciences

School of Public Health