Dr. Wesley Bolch
Department of Biomedical Engineering
2019-2020 Faculty Doctoral Mentoring Award
It is indeed a distinct honor for me to accept this nomination for the 2020 Doctoral Dissertation Advisor/Mentor Award as put forward by the Honors and Awards Committee of the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering. I have been with UF since 1995, when I relocated from Texas A&M University to join the UF Department of Nuclear & Radiological Engineering as Associate Professor. During the period 1995 to 2011, I taught and mentored graduate students in the academic programs of health physics (radiological protection of workers) and medical physics (imaging and cancer therapy of patients with radiation sources) both of which were housed within the NRE Department. With the closure of the NRE Department in 2011, I and other colleagues in the medical physics program transferred to the BME Department. While I remain today a tenured full professor in BME, the medical physics academic program was academically transferred to the College of Medicine in 2017.
My love, passion, and dedication to student mentoring comes from many sources - my undergraduate and graduate professors, my Oak Ridge National Laboratory research advisors (where I did my doctorate work), as well as my many TAMU and UF colleagues. However, there is one individual that most clearly brought me to this point in my academic career – my father W. Emmett Bolch, Jr. You see, I am a second-generation UF engineering professor. As early as my high school years in Gainesville, it became very clear to me that my father – a Professor in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences – was deeply respected and beloved by all graduate students in his research program. He brought his love and passion for the field of environmental health physics to every classroom lecture, and he fully invested himself in the success and maturation of each and every student. I had the distinct pleasure of working with him on research projects and on student supervisory committees until his death in 2003. However, to this very day, at national professional society meetings, his alumni continue to approach me, noting how he literally changed their lives for the better through his caring manner and attention to every aspect of their lives – both professionally and personally. I feel very blessed to have been here on the UF campus to witness his mentoring style and effectiveness first hand for those 9 years. Needless-to-say, my father was an extremely instrumental role model for me, and I have attempted to instill that same level of dedication and personal attentiveness to my own graduate students.
The first element of my approach to graduate mentoring is focused recruitment. Roughly half of my UF PhD students were originally undergraduate nuclear engineering students whom I had in two senior year courses in the NE program. Others were asked to join my laboratory as sophomores and juniors who had approached me prior to their senior year. I would work out a detailed plan for their research projects – many as Undergraduate Scholars Program recipients – and pair them with one of my more senior PhD students. This approach obviously provided benefit both to the undergraduate mentee (future Bolch students) and to the graduate student mentor. For those students recruited from outside UF, my goal has been to provide a good match between funded grant positions and student interests. I would stay in continual contact with them until a decision on whether or not to come to UF was made. I still recall a statement made by my very first UF PhD student – Derek Jokisch, now a full professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Engineering at Francis Marion University. I asked him on a seminar visit a few years back, how he came to decide on UF for his doctoral studies when he had many other program offers to consider. He turned to me, and other current students at this lunch gathering, and said simply “well, you were the only professor to call me directly and talk about my opportunities in your laboratory”. That lunch meeting had a significant impact on me, after which I made a mental note that a simple phone call is all it might take to make UF the final destination of a prospective recruit.
The second element of my approach to graduate mentoring is dissertation structure and focus. Many years ago, I adopted the European style of doctoral dissertation – a sequence of targeted journal articles in which each article is tied to a given dissertation research hypothesis and specific aim. I routinely tell my students that my promise to them is to have them well published at the time of graduation, and that the research focus should always be centered on the next targeted paper in their dissertation paper series. Writing and revising papers is one of my first loves of academic life, and bringing the students along in that journey – to have well-established peers of the profession give their first-hand assessment of the student’s work – is immensely satisfying for both mentor and mentee. One of the major post-graduate career paths in medical physics is to enter the clinical and research workforce following a required 2 or 3 year residency program. One of the current bottlenecks in the professional pipeline of medical physicists is that there are a limited number of residency programs in comparison to the numbers of graduate academic programs. In many cases, residency programs will have 1-2 openings with 80-100 applicants. I am proud to state that my PhD students have a 100% placement success at some of the most prestigious medical centers in the country (Stanford, MD Anderson, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, UPenn, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to name a few). The feedback from the residency program directors is that UF students are top-notch as defined by the quality of their research and resulting publications, thus driving the high acceptance rate.
The third element of my approach to graduate mentoring is fostering communication skills. I give my students ample opportunities to hone their communication skills, both written and oral, noting to them that of all the skill sets they will acquire upon graduation, communication skills are fundamental and career directing. Oral communication skills start with required presentations at our monthly group meetings, and in our smaller biweekly project meetings. Next, students are asked to present at Florida Chapter meetings of both the Health Physics Society (HPS) and the American Association for Physicists in Medicine (AAPM). Once they are at least one year into their graduate program, as they are ready, they present at the national meetings of HPS, AAPM, and other workshops and conferences. For the past 10 years, my research portfolio has included international research grants from agencies such as the European Union (Brussels), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (Paris), and the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (Hiroshima). Under these international and other US agency grants, students have the opportunity to present to international audiences. It is always thrilling to have a PhD student present and travel internationally for the very first time! I try my best to give that experience to each and every student.
The fourth and final element of my approach to graduate mentoring is personal interest and encouragement. I strive to know my students in all respects, not just from an academic background perspective, but as a person with both individual and personal interests and life challenges. As much as possible, my wife and I host student parties at our home, where we do not “talk shop” but talk about families, siblings, significant others, and what elements of life are important to them. I try not to pry, but I open myself up in these discussions, hopefully giving the students the confidence that they can share their personal goals and aspirations with me, and in a manner from which I can see if I can help them achieve these goals. On occasion, I have consoled students who have parents undergoing cancer treatments (which is a significant motivator for their dream of entering a field decided to the technologies of cancer diagnosis and treatment). On other occasions, I have worked with students undergoing periods of depression and anxiety, assisting them with UF resources, and letting them know that I am here for them if only to just listen. One of the most satisfying aspects of being a university of professor is to watch those few students of whom you had doubts at the time of assistantship appointment, but who later exceed your expectations and blossom into highly competent and successful graduates. In looking back, I don’t know how I managed to foresee their future potential, but clearly these decisions were correct ones.
Again, thank you for this opportunity to tell you a little about myself and my dedication to our UF PhD students.