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Professor Gary TallmanProfessor Gary Tallman

Tallman has helped numerous students turn their passion for science into successful careers.Tallman has helped numerous students turn their passion for science into successful careers.

Tallman's students say they appreciate his kindness, patience and respect.Tallman's students say they appreciate his kindness, patience and respect.

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Dedication and respect for students help professor earn mentoring award

A professor and researcher in molecular genetics and microbiology at The University of Texas at Austin. A dental student at Columbia University who plans to serve Vietnamese immigrants in an urban environment. A plant biology PhD student at Michigan State University who recently published important research on ways plants survive freezing temperatures.

These are just a few of the dozens of Willamette University graduates who got their start in the lab of biology Professor Gary Tallman, Taul Watanabe Chair of Science.

In his 33 years as a college professor — the last 15 of which were at Willamette — he has mentored about 80 undergraduates, kindling their interest in research while helping them find ways to turn their passions into fulfilling careers in science and medicine.

He has also supported other professors at Willamette by directing the Office for Faculty Research and Resources, which helps faculty members secure external grants and awards for their teaching and research.

His dedication as a mentor — and his research skills that have attracted numerous competitive national grants — recently garnered him the 2011 Medical Research Foundation of Oregon Mentor Award.

“I like doing research, publishing my work and discovering the answers to scientific questions,” Tallman says. “But it’s just as satisfying to see my students go on to do great things after Willamette. I love watching them find something they can be passionate about, something that challenges them intellectually and allows them to make contributions to science while solving problems to help others.”

Introducing Students to Research

In his time at Willamette, Tallman, a plant molecular cell biologist, has mentored 26 students one-on-one in research. Many of those students worked in his lab and co-authored published articles with him.

His research into the way plants respond to high temperatures — a critical question in the global climate change discussion — has inspired numerous student research projects while earning multiple national grants, including several from the National Science Foundation.

“I really like the practical application of his research and the fact that it can have a direct impact on society,” says biology major Robbie Beard ’10, who has worked in Tallman’s lab since graduation and hopes to go on to study molecular biology in graduate school before starting a career at a biotech company.

“The experience that I gained in his lab is invaluable and will allow me to hit the ground running when I enter a research lab in graduate school.”

Kacy Church ’07, who recently earned her medical degree at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, credits Tallman with helping her develop skills that are critical both in her career and in life.

“Professor Tallman taught me to notice the details and question everything,” she says. “That seems like a broad life philosophy, but it was actually one of the best attitudes I could have learned.”

Dedication to Teaching

With his strong background in science and research, Tallman could have worked at a large research-focused university. Instead, he chose to use his experience to train undergraduates in a liberal arts environment — fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.

“I like the challenge of trying to get students emotionally engaged in science,” he says. “At Willamette, we teach students to think critically and to communicate well. Both of these things are important in science — if you’ve done all the research but can’t present your results clearly, then you won’t be able to earn funding for your work or persuade others that your results are significant.”

Tallman says his role as a mentor is to be an advocate — to help students figure out where they want to go after Willamette and how to get there.

His mentees say he does this with kindness and respect. They appreciate that he gives them the freedom to pursue their own interests while challenging them to achieve more than they thought possible.

“He’s very understanding, but above all, he’s patient,” Beard says. “He always thinks about other people first, and he’s dedicated to making his students’ lives better. That’s the definition of a good mentor.”