Southeast Alumnus Awarded Sloan Fellowship for STEM Achievements

Dr. Tim Wencewicz spent much of his childhood studying in a faculty office at Southeast Missouri State University. The son of Thomas Wencewicz, Southeast assistant professor emeritus of mathematics, his family inspired his love of learning. Supportive instructors, classmates and students encouraged him to pursue a career in science and research.

As a result of his research accomplishments, Wencewicz, assistant professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, and a 2003 graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, recently received a 2018 Sloan Research Fellowship. He was among 126 researchers selected for the fellowship by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for their achievements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Wencewicz’s research focuses on antibiotic drug discovery, using chemistry to solve major problems concerning antibiotic resistance, a growing topic of global concern. He received a two-year, $65,000 fellowship to further this research.

Open to scholars in eight scientific and technical fields—chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics—the Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded in close coordination with the scientific community. Candidates must be nominated by their fellow scientists and winning fellows are selected by an independent panel of senior scholars in their field on the basis of a candidate’s research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become a leader in his or her field. Winners receive a two-year, $65,000 fellowship to further their research.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant-making institution based in New York City. Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-president and chief executive officer of the General Motors Corporation, the Foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and economics.

On receiving the Sloan Fellowship:

I was humbled to win. This is nice validation that we are doing something useful. I struggle with winning awards. I never feel like I have done enough to earn the award, and there are so many people in the world doing great things that go unnoticed. It is a recognition from the broader scientific community that we are making valuable contributions to advancing the understanding of chemistry in the natural world. I hope that the Sloan Fellowship brings recognition to the students and trainees in my lab that are doing great things. I also hope it helps draw attention to the need for new antibiotics and enable us to pursue creative ways to generate non-traditional antibiotics of the future to combat antibiotic resistance.

Southeast alumnus Dr. Tim Wencewicz in his lab at Washington University in St. Louis (photo by Washington University in St. Louis).

On pursuing teaching at the college level:

Growing up in a family of teachers instilled in me a love of learning. At Southeast, I served as an undergraduate teaching assistant in the organic chemistry laboratories. For the first time, I truly appreciated that the most effective learning takes place through teaching. I was hooked. During my doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana), I was a graduate teaching assistant, and my love of science, research and academics grew exponentially. I became more interested in how chemistry relates to biology and life processes. I pursued a postdoctoral research position at Harvard Medical School (Massachusetts) to learn more about the chemistry of life and matured into an academic professional. I am thrilled to be back in Missouri. I can give back to the state that gave so much to me. Now, I get to learn alongside diverse generations of students in the classroom and research laboratory. I hope I can give back a fraction of what Southeast gave me.

On his favorite moments as a professor and researcher:

Three things have brought me lasting joy in my time at Washington University so far — seeing a simple idea come to life, and it’s even more rewarding to witness students conceive of and execute an independent idea; helping students discover and find the courage to pursue new career paths; and working with amazing colleagues and collaborators that are much smarter than I am — I still have lots to learn.

On why he chose Southeast:

Southeast is a Wencewicz family tradition. My father, Thomas Wencewicz, was a professor in the Department of Mathematics from 1966–2008. He and my mother, Dorothy Wencewicz, raised six children in Cape Girardeau and we all attended Southeast. I was fortunate to have a loving family set a path before me that led me to the rolling campus hills of Southeast and onward to the University of Notre Dame.

On how success at Southeast influenced his career path:

My time at Southeast ignited my scientific curiosity and provided the perfect venue for developing my own creativity through interactive classroom environments and research. The highlight was performing undergraduate research with faculty and my good friends. The research environment was dynamic, and we had a special team of chemistry majors that motivated each other in a way that created an atmosphere of success. The chemistry and mathematics departments provided me with a superb education, rigorous training and dedicated professors that sponsored and supported my pursuit of a doctoral degree in chemistry at the University of Notre Dame, postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School and my current position at Washington University.

On advice for Southeast students and graduates:

Follow your passion. If you are happy, then success will follow. Take risks. You are capable of more than you know. Set high goals and fail often. This is the only way to find success. Do not take yourself too seriously; have fun. Ask your professors for letters of support, and consult these mentors throughout your career. Take advantage of the opportunities and resources that Southeast has to offer. If you have a major in a STEM discipline, then get involved in research. Never be outworked.

Top photo caption: Southeast alumnus Dr. Tim Wencewicz in his lab at Washington University in St. Louis (photo by Washington University in St. Louis).