May 29, 2012

Faculty Make a Difference by Mentoring

By Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity

For seniors Josh Matlock and Nichole Tyler, faculty mentors are making a significant impact on their pursuit of bioengineering degrees.

Matlock, affiliated with OMA&D’s Stipends for Training Aspiring Researchers (STAR) program, and Tyler, affiliated with the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD), were among the UW students honored at a national conference in November. Both were recognized for their research conducted in labs led by their respective mentors, Dr. Michael Regnier and Dr. Wendy Thomas.

A bioengineering professor at UW since 1997, Dr. Regnier’s interest in the field stemmed from his days as an Olympic weightlifter while an undergraduate at Portland State. He competed in national and international meets.

“I used to be in mathematics and history, but I was very curious about the adaptations of training, which sort of led me down the path of eventually getting here,” he said. “I think it was a very valuable experience for me and gave me a different perspective on studying, so we study both the heart, which is a muscle, and skeletal muscles.”

Dr. Michael Regnier with senior Josh Matlock

In Dr. Regnier’s lab at UW’s South Lake Union campus, a combined group of over 20 undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students are working on gene and cell-based therapies for the heart and skeletal muscle.

And like Matlock, Dr. Regnier’s students have done well.

“We’ve had 25 Mary Gates scholars in the last seven or eight years, we’ve had Levinson’s scholars, we’ve had Goldwater Scholars,” he said. “We just got our first Rhodes Scholar (Cameron Turtle) this past fall, so we’re really happy to see that.”

Undergraduate training is a large focus in Dr. Regnier’s lab. He pairs undergraduates with a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow to assist with research and receive day-to-day mentoring. Dr. Regnier’s role with students like Matlock is much larger in scope.

“My personal role is to have periodic meetings to talk about his data presentation, get him thinking about what the data means, and learning the scientific skill of data analysis and data interpretation,” he said. “It’s a teaching role.”

Matlock, who has been working in the lab since last summer, appreciates Dr. Regnier’s emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach to the sciences.

“That’s what I really respect about him,” Matlock said. “After you work in this lab, you get a sense of what everyone else is doing. We all come from diverse fields and it kind of integrates into this unique science.”

Matlock also appreciates the support he receives from both Dr. Regnier and his student mentor as well.

“They really want you to succeed so they try to help you work at your own pace, but they always set the challenges a little bit higher so that you can improve every step of the way,” Matlock said.

Tyler sought Dr. Thomas out due to her reputation as a strong mentor.

“That’s why I chose to work in this lab,” Tyler said. “I had applied to different labs, but at the end of the day, I needed someone who was going to be a good advisor. When I started doing research in this lab, I got to see how patient, encouraging and honest she is towards her students.”

Dr. Thomas earned her Ph.D. from UW in 2003 and hasn’t left since. After a one-year post-doctoral fellowship she landed what she describes as her “dream job” as a professor in the bioengineering department. Her lab in Foege Hall includes about six undergraduate students, five graduate students, and three post-doctoral fellows or research scientists. Her research themes include biomaterials and regenerative medicine, molecular and cellular engineering, and systems and quantitative biology.

Dr. Thomas employs a similar mentoring model as Dr. Regnier. The senior students handle the day-to-day mentoring of undergraduates, but she provides overall direction and guidance.

Nichole Tyler with Dr. Wendy Thomas

“I have two roles, one is a technical role and one is a career mentoring role,” she said.

The technical aspect plays out in bi-weekly group meetings with students during which they discuss their progress and challenges with their research. The career aspect occurs with a more formal one-on-one meeting with each student called the “Take it to the Next Level” meeting. Students fill out a form that helps them self-evaluate their career goals which are discussed in the meeting, as well as the possible obstacles they might face and the milestones needed to achieve that year.

“What I can do as their advisor is to help them meet those challenges and milestones,” Dr. Thomas said. “It gives me a chance to get to know them better and know what their goals are.”

And often times, awards and honors are a by-product of when students, like Tyler, achieve those goals.

“That’s what makes the job worth it,” Dr. Thomas said. “Those are moments of really high satisfaction, especially if there is any way that I helped contribute to that. I’m always proud of them, but it’s a really good feeling to know that you’ve helped a student overcome something to get where they are.”

Tyler is the first IMSD student that Dr. Thomas has worked with, but agrees that similar programs are important for promoting diversity in the sciences.

“I’m a total believer that scientists and engineers are finding solutions to the world’s problems and if we don’t have a diverse group, we don’t find answers for a diverse population,” she said.

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