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catalyst

The Magazine of The College Sciences

A Chemical Reaction

This professor emerita has effected big change in the lives of her students


Judith A. Walmsley has done a lot in her life. A chemist, teacher, mentor, wife and mother, she has devoted her time and energy to making a positive difference in the lives of others. And she has done it with a grace and finesse that have left a lasting impression on all who have met her. Now retired from teaching, Walmsley continues to have an impact in the lives of students.

The Beginning

Walmsley is trained as an inorganic chemist. In her lab, she studies the reaction of metal ions with organic compounds— the basic science behind certain anti-tumor drugs. But she wasn’t always interested in chemistry.

As a child, Walmsley was curious about how things worked. After seeing a movie about Marie Curie when she was in high school, she thought about studying physics. But she eventually devoted her attention to chemistry. Her interest in the sciences developed at a time when young women were encouraged to pursue more domestic activities, but Walmsley wanted to study chemistry and she did.

While in graduate school at the University of North Carolina, she met her husband, Frank, also a chemist. After graduating, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Toledo and the two moved to Ohio. There, Walmsley worked as a laboratory chemist in industry and they started a family. When her two daughters were young, she began teaching part-time. After a few years, she joined her husband at the University of Toledo as a senior research associate, both teaching and researching.

Walmsley wanted a more active role teaching and mentoring students, so after 10 years at the University of Toledo, when the opportunity came up at UTSA, she took it, and the family moved to San Antonio. In 1987 she joined the Division of Earth and Physical Sciences, which included chemistry, as a tenure-track assistant professor, and by 1993 had attained tenure. Walmsley’s husband Frank retired from the University of Toledo and joined the UTSA chemistry faculty as a non-tenure track instructor.

UTSA

When Walmsley first came to UTSA, there was a small master’s program with mostly part-time students. The university itself had only 12,000 students and four main buildings around the main plaza. “There was nothing around UTSA at the time,” Walmsley said. “And I liked it that way. I didn’t want to work in an urban setting.”

Although UTSA has not become urban, everything else about the school has changed during Walmsley’s tenure. The student body has more than doubled, and there are many more buildings across three campuses.

When the Division of Earth and Physical Sciences split into the departments of chemistry, geological sciences and physics in 2001, Walmsley became chair of the Department of Chemistry. She served as chair until 2005, and during that time, the department grew even more, doubling the number of faculty members. Walmsley helped write the proposal for the doctoral program, which was soon approved. With doctoral students, the department has increased grant funding dramatically—more than $9 million since 2009—and now has 21 Ph.D. students in addition to 21 master’s students.

The makeup of chemistry students has also changed over the years. When Walmsley started her studies as an undergraduate at Florida State University, there were two women in chemistry with her. There were four women in her graduate program at the University of North Carolina. Currently, half of the science students at UTSA are women

“I am always grateful to see students achieve their full potential.”

The Students

“Students have always found a very supportive atmosphere in Dr. Walmsley’s laboratory. She has been caring, demanding, fair, and extremely proud of her students. She taught them not only chemistry but also the elements of good work ethics,” said Waldemar Gorski, chair of the Department of Chemistry.

Patrick Farmer, ’88, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Baylor University, was a student of Walmsley’s shortly after she arrived at UTSA. He had come to the university to finish a degree and begin a career teaching high school. In his late 20s, he was a non-traditional student with no intention of doing research or going to graduate school. Walmsley changed all that.

When Farmer was taking an inorganic chemistry class with her, Walmsley asked if he wanted to work in her lab. He initially said he wasn’t interested because he needed to provide for his family. Walmsley offered to pay him, and he agreed. He worked that summer and through the fall and produced two papers from the work they did. Walmsley then convinced him to go to graduate school. Again, she told him, “They’ll pay you.”

Farmer attended Texas A&M University, and went on to a postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech. He has been teaching for 17 years now and has had 15 doctoral and more than 70 undergraduate students of his own.

Walmsley’s first graduate student and self-proclaimed “oldest child,” Terace Fletcher, ’93, has also pursued a career in academia because of her mentor. When she first applied to the master’s program in chemistry at UTSA, she was not interested in getting a Ph.D. or pursuing a career in academia. But as she did with Farmer, Walmsley changed Fletcher’s mind.

Under Walmsley’s mentorship, Fletcher was able to publish a first-author paper and get the foundation for a career in research. She also gained the background to prepare and complete a Ph.D. in biochemistry, an accomplishment that took her only three years. She currently serves as associate professor in the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. She began investigating the structure of chromosomes as a master’s student in Walmsley’s lab. Now she researches how DNA repairs damaged chromosomes— work with potential to change the lives of those afflicted by genetic disorders.

Fletcher said that working under Walmsley prepared her for her future relationships with mentors. “She was tough, fair, knew her stuff, was organized, and was an excellent chemist and mentor,” said Fletcher.

Walmsley gets great joy from seeing her students succeed. “I am always grateful to see students achieve their full potential,” she said. Marilyn Wooten, ’10, was introduced to laboratory research as an undergraduate in Walmsley’s lab, and reunited with her mentor when she enrolled in the university’s doctoral program in 2005 after completing a master’s degree at The University of Texas at Austin.

“I was delighted when she entered the program. I knew that she had the intelligence and self-motivation to earn a Ph.D.,” said Walmsley.

Wooten, who wasn’t originally interested in a career in academia, now teaches at Trinity University.

Providing for the Future

Dean of the College of Sciences George Perry said, “She’s always giving back and doing more—what more could I want from retired faculty?”

Gorski agrees that Walmsley’s service has been comprehensive. She’s done it all—given seminars and invited talks, reviewed manuscripts and grant proposals, served as an academic advisor, secured accreditation of UTSA’s bachelor’s program by the American Chemical Society, and chaired the department for five years.

Walmsley has also been an advocate for science education in the community. For years, she has been on the organizing committee of Expanding Your Horizons, a national program that inspires middle school and high school girls to pursue careers in the sciences. More than 400 local middle school girls benefited from the 2011 program.

She also continues to advocate for chemistry students at UTSA and for her former students. Shortly after retiring, she put together a newsletter to update all the chemistry alumni about recent events in the department.

She started a legacy by establishing the Judith A. Walmsley Endowed Graduate Program Fund in Chemistry. “I really just wanted to help someone doing a really good job. Graduate students don’t make very much money,” she said. But the fund will do more than just help graduate students in need. It will give many a boost of confidence that will carry them through their studies, much like the boosts Walmsley gave her own students.

Although she’s retired, Walmsley shows no signs of stopping. She serves as secretary for the newly established UTSA Retired Faculty Association. She comes in to work most days of the week. “With science,” she said, “the work is never done.”

To learn more about the Judith A Walmsley Endowed Graduate Program Fund or to make a gift, contact the UTSA College of Sciences at (210) 458-4450 or visit utsa.edu/sciences/giving.

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