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Floyd Wormley Jr. Leads Research and Graduate Studies

The associate provost, dean and professor works to perfect the teacher-scholar model and help faculty learn to market their research.

Floyd Wormley Jr. Leads Research and Graduate Studies

The associate provost, dean and professor works to perfect the teacher-scholar model and help faculty learn to market their research.

You’re still actively doing research as a professor of biology. How do you fit the lab work in with your administrative duties as an associate provost and dean?

It’s tough, and the balance has changed over the years. Before, my primary job was as a teacher first, a researcher second and then an administrator third. Now I’m an administrator first. I made a commitment that I would do whatever I needed to do to make sure the research and graduate studies enterprise at TCU is first on my list, outside of God and family, of course. That oftentimes means sacrifices. But the provost said she wanted me to be able to continue my research, which is a great thing. I have to make the time for it, but that’s how I’ve been living since graduate school. If you want something and you’re passionate about it, you make it work.

Floyd Wormley, though still conducting his own research as a professor, said his role as administrator for research and graduate studies comes first. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

As a student, you went from Tulane to LSU to postdoctoral work at Duke. What were you studying?

I got a bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology at Tulane. I was wanting to get into science, but everyone always wonders, “Is this for me? Is this something that I’m really cut out to do? Do I have a passion for it?”

While I was at Tulane, I took a work-study position in a laboratory at the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. That research was in immunology and virology. I realized this was my passion, something I wanted to do, which was good because I had no plan B.

In graduate school at LSU, I started off in fungal immunology. I was actually voted the superior graduate student out of my graduating class. I think it was because of my work ethic. I worked hard. I published lots of papers.

I did a workshop in molecular mycology, and one of the organizers was a well-known professor at Duke University Medical Center. Once I got my PhD, he brought me to Duke. I tell people I was looking for the perfect lab. The laboratory I joined was a with a medical doctor named John Perfect. I actually found the Perfect lab. There, I was able to learn more about the molecular biology of fungal disease and continue my work in immunology.

Molecular mycology is an unusual specialty. What do you find interesting about the way these tiny organisms can have such a massive impact on human health?

For the most part, fungi do no harm. They’re a huge part of our food: blue cheese, portabella mushrooms. A very miniscule quantity of fungal organisms causes disease. Part of the reason why those organisms do cause disease is because they can take the heat in the kitchen. Our bodies are so hot that many organisms can’t survive, but some fungal organisms can. A lot of these fungi have evolved to be able to work and survive along with us and cause no problems. It’s oftentimes only when you become immunocompromised that the fungus causes diseases. When it does cause problems, how can I rebalance the system? How can I make our bodies able to fight these diseases? The balance of how we live in a kumbaya situation with fungal organisms has always been interesting to me.

What do you tell people about the day-to-day life of working in a laboratory?

That it’s an opportunity to have a question, but you have no cookbook for answering that question. And then you come up with the recipe and can be the first one in the world to see that it works. But it’s also a lot of frustration. When you cook something for the first time, you might burn it. You might say it has too much salt, but when you get it right, it makes all that work worthwhile.

And if that doesn’t make you want to work harder and longer, then I say don’t work in a lab. When I was a postdoc, I worked for an entire year, and nothing worked. And then finally something worked. I didn’t believe it worked, so I did it again. And it worked two to three times. When I asked, “Has this ever been observed in this particular field?” they said, “No, this is the first time this has ever been observed.” It made that entire year of 12- to 15-hour days absolutely worth it.

Your work largely deals with the immune response. This intersects with vaccines, which have become a controversial topic. Is there anything you’d like to set the record straight on in terms of vaccines?

“You don’t see a lot of medical doctors and immunologists not vaccinating their kids. If I see a cook or a baker, and they’re not eating their own food, I would probably be worried.”
Floyd Wormley Jr.

You want to believe that when people are putting things out there, those things are based on the data, are based on the science. One example of when that goes wrong is when scientists put things out there, such as the link of vaccines to autism, in a reputable journal. It gets picked up, and it worries a lot of people. The impact of that is that you have thousands upon thousands of people not getting vaccinated. Part of what makes vaccines work is that you have a certain amount of people who get vaccinated, so that even if a disease does pop up, it doesn’t turn into an epidemic let alone a pandemic. When you have publications that are erroneous about these links, people take them seriously. This has led to a number of people not getting vaccinated. You end up with measles outbreaks in England and a little bit in California. You end up with a lot of people not getting their children vaccinated, which ends with morbidity. It ends up with people getting sick; it ends up with people dying.

You don’t see a lot of medical doctors and immunologists not vaccinating their kids. If I see a cook or a baker, and they’re not eating their own food, I would probably be worried. You see physicians and immunologists vaccinating their children with no problem. Then why should the general public have an issue with it? Because if I thought there was a link, I would not vaccinate my kids.

Do you have a prediction on what’s going to happen in this quest for coronavirus vaccine?

I don’t know. I think that it probably won’t be until late spring, summer until they have a vaccine that starts to ramp up and get out there, and that’s if everything goes right and they show that the vaccine actually works. Unfortunately, with some diseases, you could come up with all types of vaccines, and they just don’t work because the virus mutates and things such as that. You don’t know until it goes through the process. That’s why you do it.

Virology and molecular biology are having a shining moment right now. Scientists are scrambling to collaborate in new ways to defend against the novel coronavirus. Do you think this rapid sharing of information, including publishing studies that haven’t been peer reviewed, is a good development for the way science is working?

Most of what we do as far as publication involves going through peer review. People in the field have looked at it, have vetted it, and at the very least, this forced the authors to respond to questions. We scientists know how to read the publications. We take studies for what they are, and we can find the problems with them. The problem with not having things peer reviewed and being rushed out there is that we in the scientific community may know that and judge it based on: “OK, it has not been peer reviewed, so let’s take this with a grain of salt.”

Floyd Wormley, TCU’s associate provost of research and dean of graduate studies, said scientists have to spend time marketing their research. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

However, the general public doesn’t have that expertise, and people are oftentimes willing to grab hold of something that has not been vetted, and it becomes a problem. It becomes a particular problem when you have people pushing a study who don’t have the expertise to really judge it, who are not ready to look at the facts on the ground but push it as if it’s gospel.

People are relying on scientists to be able to vet information. It’s just not a good idea to breed a distrust of science — people might rather trust this unvetted thing being put out there than what the scientists are saying.

It’s important that distrust doesn’t happen now because lives are currently hanging on that. When you’re taking unproven drugs that can actually make the disease worse, people say, “What do you have to lose?” You literally have your life to lose. So it’s just not good.

Do you think science has done a good job marketing itself? Millions of people are sharing YouTube videos about hoaxes and people claiming the country’s leading health professionals are frauds. Have scientists done a good job explaining the rigors of how the profession works?

Scientists have a job to do and science to perform — they spend their time doing that. It’s not that we have not done a good job, it’s just that we’re busy doing our jobs. I did not take a marketing class when I was going to graduate school. Most of us don’t have publicists. So it’s hard for us to know how to do that. When you are working for the government, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, it’s not his job to do that. It’s the government’s job to come to his defense. It’s hard to combat hoaxes when your job is to spend all the time that you can getting science out. To be successful in this business takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of sacrifice. Whatever extra time you have, you want to spend with your loved ones. You want to take a two-day vacation or something like that. Overall the internet has been good. I think more information is better than less information. But perhaps the agencies we work for can put some people out there to debunk some of these myths.

Do you see the process of science changing at all in a post-pandemic world?

I don’t see it changing. Scientists are always going to be critical of what we do. We’re critical of ourselves and of the whole publication process, particularly when it’s done right. We’re critical of evaluations. I’m a reviewer: I look at the facts on the ground, and either you prove what you’re saying or you have to change what you’re saying. I think that part of science is going to stay.

What may hurt us is the trust people have in science if we push unvetted things. I’m very proud of how scientists are pretty much holding the line on the process. But what may be good is that we may actually change some of the bureaucracy around how we bring things to market, how we get things done, and we may see cooperation among manufacturers of vaccines and things such as that. We may change the process so things aren’t as slow to get out there.

What do you wish you had known when you were a graduate student?

At the very beginning, I wish I had a full financial grasp of what graduate school was going to take, so I could have better balanced student loans and stipends. You’re just thrown into that world. As an undergrad, I didn’t get a check. As a grad student, I did. I thought, “Wow, I get paid,” but it’s really not a lot.

Also, work on your writing skills. You can be a great scientist, but if you never get it out, no one knows.

“You have to be innovative. You have to have a solid background and training, and you have to have perseverance.”
Floyd Wormley Jr.

And always make time for those things that are most important in your life. Oftentimes you focus so much on your studies that you put everything else aside. I always try to make time for church, and I make time for family because without that nothing else really matters. I would rather go without sleep than to throw everything else out.

Graduate students talk about financial hardship, especially during the PhD years when students are teaching, studying, researching, making it all happen with serious budget limitations. How can graduate students stay on top of it all?

The first thing you need to know is what you’re getting into. You have to go into graduate school knowing at the end, you’re going to have an education. But this is a step towards your career. You’re not a professional yet. You need to be able to think about your finances: your rent, medical care. Most universities have resources to help you take money into consideration. At TCU, we’re going to start having more workshops on the financial piece so people know from the very beginning.

I would also tell people not to go into a lot of debt. If that means that you need to work while in school, or take a graduate assistantship, or teaching assistantship, you may have to make that commitment so you’re not loaded down with a bunch of debt that you may not be able to afford at the end of the day.

Focus on getting out of school. My wife used to tell me, “Go and get it done so that you can then enjoy your life afterward.” If it’s your true passion, then it’s not going to seem like work. I worked 70-hour weeks easy, but I loved doing it.

The landscape of research funding in general is changing very much, especially in the United States. So how do researchers go about securing the necessary funds in this uncertain climate?

You have to be innovative. You have to have a solid background and training, and you have to have perseverance. There have been studies to show that when people do not get funded, the reason why they don’t get funded is because they don’t persevere. They get that first letter saying no and then they stop applying.

Being able to tell a good story is also very important. Pay attention to your English and your reading classes as an undergrad because you’re going to need to be able to tell that story, to be able to almost market what you’re doing.

What about internal support? TCU has long provided some funding to help get research projects in motion. Is the internal funding model a viable one?

As a seed for research to grow, it’s very viable. It’s not a good model for sustaining research. If you’re a researcher and you want your research program to grow, it won’t if you’re totally dependent on internal funds.

“Work on your writing skills. You can be a great scientist, but if you never get it out, no one knows.”
Floyd Wormley Jr.

The internal funding is to give you that data, those preliminary results so that you can publish your paper, so that you can get those studies done, to show that you can do it, that it’s not just an idea you had. It’s very important as far as getting future funding.

To maintain and sustain a research program for years and decades, you must go out there and compete for external funds. Having external reviewers on this type of work makes your research better. You may not like it when they tell you things about your project, but it does make for better research.

What about the role of research in TCU’s teacher-scholar model? How do students benefit when professors can divide their time between a teaching focus and a research focus, and often involve their students in the latter?

In order for students to be successful, they have to be able to apply what they have learned to a real-world environment. That application can come from internships or because they worked within a research infrastructure. When people think of research, they may think of test tubes, chemicals, the laboratory. Research is also going on, for example, in the business school. Someone gives you a problem that you need to solve. How do you do that? Through research. In social work and psychology, you interview people. We have undergraduate students working with graduate students and faculty as a team to do this. Our faculty and graduate students take this back to the classroom to provide that real-time, real-world experience.

What I tell my students is, “When I teach you something, I’m not teaching you something that’s strictly in a textbook.” Many of us have written chapters for textbooks, and those are based on things that have been done from that point backwards. When I teach my students, I teach what we are doing from that day forward. I teach them things that are not in a textbook yet. A research program keeps us not only on the cutting edge, it keeps us on the forward edge. We’re bringing the latest and greatest to the classroom. Otherwise you’re pretty much teaching what’s in the encyclopedia.

“We don’t just teach students. We teach lifelong learners.”
Floyd Wormley Jr.

We also want to teach our students how to critically evaluate and think. At the end of the day, we cannot teach our students everything that they need to know to be successful in their future careers. But we can teach them how to critically evaluate and how to synthesize and go on to be lifelong learners. At TCU, this is why the teacher-scholar model is so important. We don’t just teach students. We teach lifelong learners. Without research, without the scholarship, without the teacher-scholar model, I don’t understand how it can be done effectively.

On top of that, our graduate students, because they learn that model, they’re also going to go on to be better teachers because they’ve been in the classroom; they’ve been working with students. That’s something else we’re going to be focused on — how to take our teacher-scholar model and then generate teacher-scholars. I think having that perfect mix is wonderful. That’s one of the things that drew me to TCU.

Floyd Wormley encourages researchers to apply for external funds for the growth of their projects. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

Where do you think TCU can grow in terms of research?

We can take that teacher-scholar model and be the institution that perfects it. I think we can involve our students even more in the creative process. I think we can build even more on our ability to be competitive for external funding programs. Some of that is going to be the infrastructure that we’re able to provide in the Office of Research: by providing grant development workshops, by bringing in program managers, by ensuring we are providing adequate time for our faculty to be able to do research and the resources to be able to do it.

The more individuals outside of TCU who see the research we’re doing, the more that we’re involved in our community, the better we’re going to be. We’re doing some top stuff. I just think that we’ve focused on research and students and not necessarily getting the word out about what we do. I think we can market ourselves a bit better. Ten years from now, we’re going to be much better known.

What about the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine? A lot of science and nursing faculty have dual appointments. How do you see that collaboration changing the research landscape at TCU?

I think that gives us a great clinical and a great translational component to our research. I’ve been talking to Dean Stuart Flynn about things we can do related to COVID-19. I think having the medical school here, together with our nursing program, our social work program and our sciences, is a great model. Many medical schools have their own separate basic sciences department. Whereas at TCU, our science department and our nursing department are their basic sciences department, so it’s much more intertwined with the core university. This means we can definitely grow together.

What words of encouragement would you give to a TCU faculty member whose lab has been temporarily shut down due to the pandemic?

We’re going to be back to work. They know why we shut things down. It was the safest thing. Many of our research labs have students working in them, and the last thing we want is to endanger our students. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. This is something that we are going through. We will get through it. When Jesus said we’re going to the other side, he meant we’re going to the other side. So be patient. Believe me — I want my lab open, so I want yours open, too.

Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.