‘We learn from students as much as they learn from us’ – UP prof on his 101 PhD graduates

Posted on May 15, 2019

Professor Mike Wingfield of the University of Pretoria (UP) has acted as an advisor or supervisor to an impressive 101 PhD graduates, as of April 2019.

“I have to admit, I was not aware of this particular statistic,” said Prof Wingfield, founding director of the internationally recognised Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at UP, who has held this position for 20 years until becoming advisor to the UP Executive. “I have been incredibly lucky to work in a vibrant research environment and to have had the privilege of being part of the mentorship team of fabulous students.” 

He added that he does not necessarily like metrics and numbers. “We do what we do because we believe in doing so – at least, this is true in my case.” Prof Wingfield is recognised around the world for his research on tree health, especially on that of the pathways of movement of tree-killing pests. His academic interests include insects and pathogens that cause damage and disease of trees, degrade timber or that are potentially valuable in the pulping process and the production of industrially valuable compounds.

Widely recognised for his research, the professor has received honorary doctorates from the University of British Columbia and North Carolina State University, two institutions that arguably have the strongest forestry programmes in the world. In South Africa, he has an A-1 rating from the National Research Foundation.

As for the many PhD graduates that he has guided, Prof Wingfield said: “There are so many highlights, I cannot possibly choose one or a few. Every student is special in a unique way.  What I treasure is the relationships that one builds over time. As an advisor, one learns from students as much, or more, as they learn from us.”

His students have come from South Africa and many other parts of the world – Chinese students FeiFei Liu and Runlei Chen, and South African Gaby Carstensen are students of his who recently received their PhDs. “It is important to say that I was not the primary supervisor of these wonderful young people.” Though he is quick to add that he has learnt so much about different cultures, beliefs and life choices. “I cannot imagine having lived my life without these experiences and I am grateful to all my past students.” Many of these past students were master’s degree candidates – who of course also have supervisory needs. “Please don’t ask me how many MSc students I have advised – I have never counted,” he jokes.

Prof Wingfield credits his approach as an advisor to his experience as a doctoral student. “My experience in leading the research programmes of students comes from my time as a PhD student at the University of Minnesota where students have the privilege of an advisory committee. I have followed the same approach with my students and have encouraged my colleagues to do the same.”

This means students have the benefit of a team of advisors, which adds diversity of experience, security in case of an advisor leaving, and protection “from overzealousness on the part of an advisor or student”, Prof Wingfield explained. “I remember one of my first PhD students refusing to have an advisory committee. He said he wanted only me! But when I became seriously ill and was hospitalised, he quickly changed his mind and agreed to have co-advisors! Happily I lived to tell the tale, and I know he was much better off in this situation.”

This system has worked well at FABI, the professor added, and has contributed to what he considers to be a “mentorship stream” for young academics. “When we first enter the academic world, we are not well equipped to guide graduate students. An advisory team provides us with a means to learn the ropes and become better-equipped advisors. This mechanism also allows academics first entering the university system to benefit from research funding that established researchers already have in place.”

Prof Wingfield is grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to the education and experiences of many young people. “I thank all my past students for their friendship, hard work and for the significant contributions they have made to my life and to building the significant research outputs of FABI and the University of Pretoria.”


- Author Primarashni Gower

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