Biology professor wins Regents Diversity Award

January 30, 2014

Brett WoodsTo complete his first undergraduate research project, Brett Woods had to escape to Alcatraz.

As a college student at the University of California, Berkeley, Woods was studying the roosting habits of the black-crowned night heron - a nocturnal, stocky seabird.

The birds were reluctant research subjects.

"Every time I approached, every time I got close, they flew away," he said.

After discussing the situation with his professor, Woods secured a permit to conduct his research on Alcatraz Island - home of the infamous former prison in San Francisco Bay, now a sanctuary for numerous birds, including black-crowned night herons.

The experience altered the course of his personal and professional life.

"My work on Alcatraz Island led to a job, which led to graduate school, which started me on a path to where I am today," Woods said.

A domino effect of opportunity - all because of a strong relationship with a faculty mentor.

"When I was an undergraduate, I struggled in areas. Specific professors went out of their way to help me, allowing me to find my way as a student in science," he said. "They took interest in me. I said that if I ever got to a place in my life where I could do the same, I would."

Woods embraces that concept here at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. As a mentor and researcher, he is inspiring a generation of young scientists.

His dedication - particularly to minority and first-generation students - has garnered statewide praise.

Woods is the 2014 UW System Board of Regents Diversity Award winner.

Woods in ColoradoAn assistant professor of biological sciences, Woods has worked with more than 100 underrepresented students and helped secure more than $150,000 in grants to support them in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) endeavors.

The students have gone on to compete and win awards in poster contests, present at research conferences and enroll in highly competitive Ph.D. programs.

Faculty mentors are critical to helping students in pursuing their higher education dreams, Woods said.

"Students come to school with aspirations of becoming doctors, but they don't really have an idea of what that means, what it takes to get there," he said.

Many students struggle in the early years of a science degree program, which contributes to drop-out rates. Woods said it's important to keep students motivated and make sure they don't get discouraged.

"So much is trying to convince students it's a preparation issue, not a brain capacity issue," Woods said. "They're not inferior. They just have not been adequately prepared, for whatever reason.  They're behind, but they can catch up. Like learning to swim, we are not going to just throw them in the deep end. We're going to start in the shallow end learning some strokes."

Woods helped develop Science Boot Camp, a program that welcomes 15-20 incoming freshman and returning sophomores to UW-Whitewater for a two-week summer session.

Students learn what it's like to work in a laboratory, how to take good notes, access campus resources, and improve their writing and oral communication skills. The camp is now in its third year and has become a model for similar camps in other academic areas.

"When students say 'I want to give research a try,' that's a very rewarding moment as a mentor. I love bringing students into the field," Woods said.

Brett WoodsEach year, Woods' scientific research takes him to Colorado, where he and his students study the hibernation, reproduction and survival of yellow-bellied marmots - creatures that live in the Rocky Mountains at altitudes up to 15,000 feet.

Whether out west, or in his laboratory at UW-Whitewater, Woods is known for having a contagious enthusiasm for the subjects he teaches.

"When appropriate, I share cool new research and personal stories that relate to the material," he said. "I make the classroom environment light and fun. I want students to enjoy going to class. Fun and learning are not mutually exclusive."


Jeff Angileri

Sara Kuhl

Classroom photos by Craig Schreiner