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  • Writer's pictureFernanda G. Duque

To be a mentee in the Wilczynski Lab

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

In loving memory of Walt Wilczynski

On Tuesday, June 09, 2020, my beloved PhD advisor and mentor, Walt Wilczynski, passed away. I am still in shock and processing the news. I haven’t even started grieving his loss yet. Walt was an amazing mentor and human being. He was smart, kind, and caring.

What I admired the most on him was how much he cared about us as mentees, our dreams, our interests, our goals, and worries. Walter was always a soothing voice in the darkest and most stressful days. After talking to him, I always left with two thoughts: ‘everything will be alright,’ and ‘the world needs more people like Walt’.

When I came to the US for grad school, I was convinced that I was going to study social behavior in lizards. On my first day at GSU, I met with Walt, and he asked me how my hummingbird project was going. After I excitedly gave him an update on the hummingbirds, he told me: “You know, I think you could work on your hummingbird project for your dissertation. It is such an interesting project, and you should not let it die!” And so, my journey began. From that very first day on, he supported me at every step of the way, and in every crazy idea I came up with, every grant proposal, every presentation, conference, field trip, everything! Including those times when I needed to rest and step back.

Walt taught me with care and kindness. He was humble about his knowledge and always generous to share it with anyone who needed it. He explained difficult concepts in simple words, which also translated to his writing: plain, simple, and elegant. He helped me improved my own writing, helping me to convey my ideas rather than dismissing them or imposing his own. He taught me to do good science, that there are not “good” or “positive” results. There is only good science, and the results are what they are. He provided guidance but allowed me to have full independence. When asked about the diverse projects in which he was involved including now hummingbirds, he replied “Well, I think they’re cool and fun!” And that was his approach to science.

He always made sure to provide a welcoming environment for everyone. I never had to ask about ‘significant others’ attending a lab gathering, because Walt would often invite my husband Carlos directly. Walt also loved running 5K races. It was a tradition he had with his wife Debbi for decades, and that he shared with many of us at GSU. Carlos and I joined his running team in 2017. After each race, we went to a traditional diner to have breakfast, often huge and with more calories than those we burned in the race. When Walt could no longer run 5Ks, we also stopped. We realized that what we loved the most about running was spending time with Walt and Debbi afterwards.

He was supportive not only to me, but to Carlos as well, which I will always be grateful for. He knew we are alone in this country, so he was always very generous with his time to explain to us how to navigate the system. He carefully listened to our interest, expectations, and worries to provide the best advice possible. He was such a good listener, and his advice was pure gold!

I am his last PhD student, and that is a badge of honor I will carry with pride. He is no longer with us, but his legacy will live on his contributions to the field of neuroethology, and on everyone who had the privilege to meet him in and outside of academia.

I will miss him deeply!

With several members of GSU's Neuroscience Institute after our 5K in San Diego, CA in November 2018 while visiting for the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting.

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