2019 Award for Excellence in Supervision: Tony Williams

October 07, 2019
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Since joining SFU’s Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science in 1994, Professor Tony Williams has dedicated a great deal of his time and energy into mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

As a result, he is able to attract, retain and mentor graduate students to excel. In fact, 50% of his completed doctoral students, and all of his postdoctoral fellows now occupy tenure-track positions at research-intensive institutions.

Dean of the Faculty of Science, Paul Kench, attributes the high rates of success in mentoring to Williams’ excellent leadership and the strength of support he provides to students and postdocs.

“This support includes securing research funds to support the field and laboratory elements of their projects, financial support to ensure students travel to international conferences, and close support in mentoring them through the research publication process,” says Kench.

Current doctoral student, Mason King, and former doctoral student, Jeff Yap (currently a postdoc at Auburn University), agree that Williams goes above and beyond to ensure his students succeed.

“Unlike many supervisors, Tony fully participates and is materially involved in his students' work from data collection to manuscript preparation. Tony even assists in field work every summer, which involves waking up before dawn to catch and sample wild songbirds in all weather conditions. Following an early morning, he returns to campus in the afternoon to lecture and advise his other students. His extensive time commitment to help students in the field and laboratory makes it possible for his students to complete their degrees in a timely manner and collect excellent data,” they note.

Williams’ students and postdocs are able to identify the tangible aspects of his mentorship that are particularly effective: providing funding so students don’t need to worry about financial stress, encouraging students to present and attend conferences and partake in lab exchanges, and even puts the needs of his students above those of his own research agenda.

“While he [Williams] provides initial ideas to guide the direction of student theses he subsequently gives students the freedom to work independently. He provides regular constructive feedback and participates fully in their work, but allows students to explore their own research questions. The intellectual development of students often takes priority over his personal research agenda. By encouraging students to pursue their own research interests as well as outside collaborations, he allows students to practice critical thinking and creativity they will need to be productive and successful members of the field,” share King and Yap.

Now that some of his grad students and postdocs are in positions to mentor others, they have carefully taken note of Williams’ style of mentorship and guidance as something they aspire to as well.

“To give you an idea of how highly I and many of his past students think of his mentorship, when we started mentoring our own trainees, we had bracelets made with ‘WWTDWD?’ inscribed on them as a reminder to ask ourselves, ‘What would Tony D. Williams do?’," shares former doctoral student, Katrina Salvante, current Research Associate with the Maternal and Child Health Lab in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences.