Biochemist turned sociologist now leads USC Dornsife’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies
The nun walked the dirt streets alone.
Each day she visited residents living in a colonia of tin-roof homes in a steep ravine just outside Cuernavaca, Mexico.
As a pastoral worker for 4,000 families, Sister Dolores listened to their hopes and struggles, and taught their children to read with paper-bound books of the Gospel of Mark.
Richard Wood was drawn to her work.
At 23, he had left his job at a Bay Area biochemistry lab to travel abroad seeking to understand a region gripped by poverty and political violence.
He joined the woman on her daily walks.
“Through her, I witnessed first-hand the power of faith and collaborative work,” said Wood, who lived among the displaced farmers and their families. “I learned that by listening to others and working together, we expand our horizons and come to see others in new ways.”
Wood has carried that lesson through his career as an ethnographic researcher, sociology professor, university leader and now as the new president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC.
The research center, based at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, supports scholars, produces books, leads research projects, hosts academic conferences and sponsors cultural events.
The institute’s work to bring people together from different backgrounds is crucial in today’s polarized world, Wood said.
“The divisions in American life mirror the divisions in the Catholic Church,” he said. “Transcending those divisions will require new ideas rooted in deep traditions from people of goodwill thinking together about what they want to build for future generations.”
Wood leads an institute with an ambitious mission and a growing global footprint. Current projects include “Humanizing Networks: Human Fraternity in the Digital Age,” a collaboration with the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences that explores the Catholic Church’s role in guiding social ethics around artificial intelligence and other digital technologies transforming our society.
“Being located at USC, the institute is in perfect position to address some of society’s most pressing issues in a powerful way,” Wood said.
A perspective rooted in science and experience
Wood was raised in New Mexico. His father was a theoretical physicist trained at Cal Tech who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and his mother was trained as an organic chemist. Wood earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California, Davis, worked in genetic sequencing and considered a career as a primary care physician.
But news headlines from El Salvador caught his attention. In 1980, shortly after calling on the country’s soldiers to “stop the oppression,” Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador was assassinated. The event changed the course of Wood’s life, compelling him to discover more about the region and its people.
“I learned about people deeply rooted in their faith losing their lives struggling for a better society,” he said.
As war and political strife swept through Latin America, Wood traveled to Mexico. He took jobs as a teacher and leading tours into rural communities, where he served as a liaison between church groups from the U.S., local residents and staffers at NGOs working to advance human rights, Catholic social teaching and indigenous sovereignty.
“We were exposing people to different points of view and getting them to wrestle with what was happening in Central America,” Wood said.
After more than four years in the region, Wood returned to California, earning a master’s in theology from the Graduate Theological Union and a doctorate in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.
His first ethnographic research project was in Oakland, where he met parents pressing school district officials to improve education through additional teacher training and the creation of career academies.
“It was transformative to see everyday citizens, including people of different faith traditions and political orientations, asking for local government and democracy to work for them,” he said.
Today, Wood’s research focuses on faith-based community organizing, sociology and religion. He’s authored two award-winning books: A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy (The University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Faith in Action (The University of Chicago Press, 2002). He’s written dozens of articles for leading peer-reviewed academic journals and served as the principal investigator on four major federally funded research projects.
“He has found a way to do scholarship that matters to many people and is able to translate that scholarship so it has purchase power that’s not just in the confines of journal articles,” said Tricia Bruce, PhD, of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society, who has worked with Wood and considers him a mentor. “He realizes this work has power to shape our understanding of the world and shape the world itself.”
Leadership and empathy in action
Wood spent 27 years at the University of New Mexico as a professor of sociology. He served as the university’s interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and the senior vice provost for academic mission. He oversaw the university’s academic priorities and led initiatives to advance equity and academic excellence.
“His background shapes a perspective that is different and builds deep empathy,” Bruce added. “He has a warmth and generosity of spirit that conveys a care for what he is doing and the people he is working with.”
Throughout, Wood’s work has centered on listening and seeking to understand.
“He’s authentic, courageous and pushes ahead on asking the right questions,” said Gary Adler, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at Penn State and a 2023–24 Fulbright Scholar, who first met Wood while working toward his master’s degree. “He has decades of grass-roots level work trying to create social change in a way that evokes the best of the Catholic Church and our country.”
Finding inspiration among people and in the natural world
An outdoor enthusiast who enjoys fly fishing, skiing and hiking, Wood and his wife, Dana, have two adult children, Ella and Adam.
Wood finds inspiration in the natural world and other people — especially those fighting against hate and intolerance.
And he often thinks of Sister Dolores.
“She selflessly carried out her work to serve others, all while living an incredibly joy-filled life,” Wood said. “We need more of that in our world. And we need the new ideas, research and writing that inspire people and shape a shared future. That’s our mission at the institute.”
Learn more about Rich Wood and the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC at iacs.usc.edu.