Foster was born a middle child in 1957, and grew up in suburban New Jersey, where her mother studied drama and her father worked as a mathematician.

As a little girl, she said, her first aspirations were to be a farmer or an actress.

“I’m still dramatic,” she joked.

The third thing she wanted to be was a mapmaker.

“I loved maps and I loved places and journeys,” she said. That passion led to her first degree, in geography and environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

After Foster earned a doctorate at Princeton University in 1993, she took a position as a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo, where she eventually rose to department chairwoman.

Even though Foster hasn’t served in the upper echelons of a university administration, she does bring executive-level experience to the post, most notably six years as the director of a university-based center that focused on regional development in Buffalo.

“I took a nontraditional pathway to the presidency,” she said.

In Buffalo, she said, she honed the many skills needed to run a large organization, including knowing how to “work with the governing board, do strategic planning, work with media, build a team, raise money, manage a large staff of professionals and interact with groups both on the campus and in the public realm.”

Among many other accomplishments, Foster has raised millions of dollars; engineered partnerships between her institute and groups, including the MacArthur Foundation and the New York Federal Reserve Bank; and has been identified in business publications as a “woman of influence in public policy.”

She said that she’s looking forward to taking the university into its 150th year in 2013.

“It reminds you that you are a steward of an institution that has a long history and will have a long future,” she said.

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