Late in the afternoon, in Jo Rae Wright's cell-biology lab at Duke University, students often took a break with their mentor to laugh and celebrate their accomplishments.
Joel F. Herbein remembers many a run to the grocery store with a wad of her cash in his pocket to buy snacks and drinks. "You fly—I'll buy," she often told him.
He says those words took on deeper meaning as he and his fellow lab graduates tried to absorb news of her death on January 11, at age 56, following her battle of several years against breast cancer.
"If you had a vision for yourself, a journey to take, or an ambition to fulfill, Jo Rae would give of herself to provide critical resources," Mr. Herbein, a microbiology researcher who pursued his doctorate under her guidance in the late 90s, wrote as part of a eulogy by her former students.
In October, as her health worsened, Ms. Wright stepped down from her position as dean of Duke's Graduate School, a post she had held since 2006. She continued to teach full time as a professor of cell biology, medicine, and pediatrics, and to advise graduate students. Her work focused on how the lungs protect themselves against airborne infections.
"One of her favorite quotes was, 'Nobody leaves the Wright lab—they just circle in a larger orbit,'" said Amy Pastva, who worked for eight years in the lab, beginning as a postdoctoral student in 2004 and later as a faculty member. "She brought people into her lab from all kinds of disciplines—middle-school teachers, medical residents, and physical therapists like myself—and exposed everyone to the fun of science."
Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for basic sciences at Duke's medical school, says that whether the issue was stipends, health insurance, or setting up an office for postdoctoral fellows, "Jo Rae was relentless in making sure students never got exploited. She really cared about every student and wasn't going to let anyone fall through the cracks."
Ms. Wright joined the Duke faculty in 1993 as an associate professor and began developing programs to arm graduate students with survival skills such as delivering professional presentations, interacting with mentors, and planning their careers. She became associate dean for graduate programs in 2000, then vice dean for basic sciences in the medical school two years later. In 2006, she was appointed dean of the Graduate School, a job she juggled with her duties as president of the American Thoracic Society in 2008 and 2009.
David F. Bell, who took over from her as interim dean of the graduate school, remembered her as warm and caring, a student-centered workaholic who listened carefully to opposing points of view but was firm in her convictions.
"She could walk into a meeting she was to conduct and immediately command the room," he said, and she knew "exactly what she wanted to accomplish when colleagues got together."
She also knew just how to reassure stressed-out graduate students who were fretting about the academic job market, said Stephanie Holmer, a doctoral student in cell biology.
"Jo Rae always said that she didn't care what her students did when they finished their Ph.D.'s," Ms. Holmer said, "as long as they were happy, they were contributing to society, and they were making use of their Ph.D. training."