Distinguished Mentor Awardee Inspires Passion for Research

gail willsky

Gail R. Willsky, PhD, mentors students in her research of insulin-like vanadium compounds.

Published August 8, 2013

She is one of three University at Buffalo faculty members recognized this year for exceptional work with undergraduate students.

The awards were presented April 12 during UB’s 2013 Celebration of Student Academic Excellence.

“In listening to her students, she is able to direct them to the coursework, the opportunities and the people most pertinent to their interests and further their development in a field they are passionate about.”
Martha Ann Clark, PhD student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
UB biochemistry alumna

Undergraduate Biochemistry Program is UB Strength

“It was very gratifying to be recognized for something I have devoted many hours to and truly enjoy doing,” says Willsky, who earned her doctorate in microbiology and molecular biology at Tufts University.

“The strong undergraduate biochemistry program was one of the things that attracted me to UB.”

Mentees Achieve Notable Success

More than 35 undergraduate students from across the university have worked in Willsky’s laboratory, with many achieving notable success.

Undergraduate researchers have been cited as co-authors on about 40 percent of Willsky’s published papers.

A few have won Sigma Xi awards for outstanding original research from the UB chapter of the Scientific Research Society.

Willsky’s students have gone on to earn advanced science or medical degrees—including several from the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences—and begin prominent careers. Her mentees now include a local oncologist, psychiatrist and pediatrician, and a spine surgeon in Phoenix, Ariz.

Doctoral Student Praises Mentor’s Influence

“Because of Dr. Willsky, I fell in love with research,” says Martha Ann Clark, who is now pursuing her PhD in microbiology and immunology.

“I have found great passion for and success in my thesis research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” she says.

“Even as a part of this may be attributed to some inherent talent I possess, the larger part must be credited to the mentorship and guidance I have received from Dr. Willsky.”

Involving Students in Independent Thought, Research

As chair of the biochemistry undergraduate program for more than 15 years, Willsky has been instrumental in developing a strong curriculum that promotes the excitement of scientific discovery and requires all majors to pursue independent research in an active laboratory.

In large lecture classes, she engages students by asking questions, encouraging them to declare an opinion without having full information. “It’s important because they have to do it in real life,” Willsky says.

In her own lab, Willsky and her students have explored insulin-like vanadium compounds and the mode of action of medicinal plants used by native healers in Peru. In the process, they have employed multiple techniques, including genetics and magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Learning from Mistakes Helps Students

Describing her as “demanding, but fair,” Clark says Willsky expects students to make mistakes—then learn from them.

“She understands that learning can be slow, mistakes get made, and too often experiments fail,” says Clark. “That said, she expects her students to critically assess failed experiments.”

Willsky also is willing to listen, a quality Clark says “probably makes her most effective as a mentor.”

“In listening to her students, she is able to direct them to the coursework, the opportunities and the people most pertinent to their interests and further their development in a field they are passionate about.”

Outreach Builds Awareness of Science Careers

Willsky also spreads her enthusiasm for science more broadly by speaking at local events and building awareness among young students in Buffalo.

As president of the Buffalo chapter of the Association for Women in Science for more than a decade, she has encouraged girls and students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, working with various academic support programs and service organizations.

She judges school science fairs and organized “Imagine Yourself as a Scientist” activities for Buffalo middle school students in 2001.

“You’ve got to hit them in sixth grade,” says the biochemist who was inspired by reading Isaac Asimov at age 14 and by the good guidance of her own teachers.

Meyerson Awardees Help Scholars Reach Potential

Established by UB President Emeritus Martin Meyerson and his wife, Margy Ellen, “this award sets the bar for faculty excellence in helping our undergraduates reach their full potential as young scholars,” says A. Scott Weber, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

“Like the Meyersons, we believe that the best undergraduate creative experiences are collaborative; encourage student autonomy and responsibility; and create strong mentoring relationships with faculty.”

Faculty members in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences have been honored with the Meyerson award for three years in a row.

Kate Rittenhouse-Olson, PhD, professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences, received the award in 2011 and Satpal Singh, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, was honored in 2012.