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Faculty recipients announced for 2021 Distinction in Mentoring Undergraduates in Research

Faculty Award 2021
Pictured left to right. Matthew Kasson, Amy Gentzler, Justin Legleiter and Megan Leight.

The Office of Undergraduate Research announces the recipients of the 2021 Faculty Award for Distinction in Mentoring Undergraduates in Research. The Award honors faculty members in four categories: behavioral & social sciences, biosciences & health sciences, humanities & the arts, and physical sciences & technology.

This year’s recipients are:

Sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research, the award serves to recognize, reward and encourage faculty members who mentor undergraduate students in research and creative endeavors. The award applies rigorous criteria to identify faculty who specifically mentor undergraduates in making an original intellectual or creative contribution to their discipline.

The selection committee was highly impressed by each of this year’s award recipients. “These faculty members went above and beyond to ensure that undergraduate students were fully integrated in their research teams. More impressive was their consistency in mentoring undergraduates in research. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which imposed many restrictions to undergraduate research, these faculties came up with creative and innovative ideas that kept their undergraduate researchers engaged and committed to their research projects,” said Cinthia Pacheco, assistant director of WVU’s Office of Undergraduate Research. “These experiences have impacted all aspects of these student’s lives and will have lasting influence in their future careers, as noted in the nearly 30 letters sent by students supporting these faculties for the Award.”

As a plant pathologist and mycologist Kasson sees parallels between biological symbiosis and mentoring undergraduates in research. In his own words “much like the nutritional relationship between insects and their symbiotic fungi, mentors provide sustenance for undergraduate mentees to develop, mature, and disseminate into new environments; in return, fundamental ideas are perpetuated as propagules”. Over the last seven years as a WVU faculty member, many of Kasson’s undergraduate researchers have contributed to peer-reviewed publications, have benefited from WVU's internal programs such as RAP and SURE, and have presented research in professional meetings and WVU research symposia.

Since 2015, Gentzler has mentored over 50 different undergraduate researchers, many for multiple semesters. Many of her mentees have presented posters at local, regional, or international conferences, co-authored research papers and completed their research capstones or honors thesis in her lab. She has also taken advantage of mentoring undergraduates in different WVU-based undergraduate research programs including McNair, SURE, EXCEL and RAP. In addition, Gentzler’s outstanding work with undergraduates made it possible for her to receive an R15 grant funded through NIH. This grant funds Principal Investigators who train undergraduate students to do high-quality research. For the three years of this grant (2016-20), Gentzler mentored 16-17 undergraduate research assistants a year, and for the final no-cost extension year (2020-21), she has mentored eight students.

Since joining WVU faculty in 2008, Legleiter has established a record of excellent mentorship of undergraduates in research. He guides and educates students while empowering them to make their own discoveries. He establishes tangible goals for his mentees, which include “contribution to a published scientific study and production of results of high enough quality to present at a scientific meeting”. These goals have allowed his students to be co-authors on several peer-reviewed publications and to present their work in prestigious meetings. Undergraduates in his lab regularly present at university undergraduate research programs, often being recognized at these events with awards. In addition, he has mentored undergraduates from a variety of majors and programs, i.e., chemistry, biology, biochemistry, Nanoscience REU, Chemistry REU, RAP and SURE.

As a teaching assistant professor, Leight’s mentoring of undergraduates in research goes above and beyond her duties. In addition to her teaching and advising workload, she has secured many grants and awards, which has allowed her undergraduate researchers to work in different creative endeavors. If it wasn’t for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, one of Leight’s recent grants would have allowed three of her undergraduate researchers to travel to Guatemala for a faculty-led Archaeology Research project. She will resume this hard-earned research trip once international travel is able to be approved. Leight has served as an excellent example of inspiring students in the arts to explore new opportunities and pursue challenging research opportunities.

“This award has been in place since 2016 and every year we are impressed by the faculty who are nominated. Each year, the pool of nominees is filled with faculty who go above and beyond their job descriptions. Their subtle mentoring moves their undergraduates from research dependence and toward research independence and allows their students to creatively engage in all aspects of research,” said Michelle Richards-Babb, director of WVU’s Office of Undergraduate Research. “This year’s recipients exemplify our faculty who, as a whole, have continued to mentor undergraduates in research through the pandemic. This just would not occur without faculty buy-in and we have wholesale buy-in from our faculty for undergraduate research.”

The recipients of the 2021 Faculty Awards for Distinction in Mentoring Undergraduates in Research will each receive a monetary award to be used toward their continued support of their student researchers. The Office of Undergraduate Research connects students and faculty to provide opportunities for students to engage in scholarly inquiry and creative endeavors. 

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