It's GIVE and Take in Melanie Mormile's Balancing Act

Melanie Mormile’s initials notwithstanding (her middle name starts with an “R,” not an “O”), she has a long history of investing in other people’s success, serving as mentor to students and younger colleagues, and giving back from the wealth of her own educational journey.

It was not the rosiest start for the award-winning Missouri S&T professor of biological sciences, though. After changing her major from chemical engineering to chemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, she was shocked when her chemistry professor told his students on the first day of class, “I really resent having to teach this class. I’m going to try to flunk as many of you as I can.”

He flunked 52 percent of the class that quarter, including Mormile, who had no idea at the time that she would make academia her career. Still, she knew that the attitude of “you students are getting in the way of my important research” was the wrong mindset for an educator. A thought was forming in her head about being able to balance both research and teaching while being successful at both.

She would be the first to admit that her own attempts at balance have not always been perfect, especially when the element of family is thrown into the mix, however, her accomplishments speak for themselves. Mormile earned the status of associate professor five years into her career and full professor after six more years, garnering five faculty excellence awards along the way, as well as several Outstanding Professor Awards and Excellence in Teaching Awards. She has published 33 peer-reviewed articles, two book chapters and five proceedings articles, and she holds two patents.

In 2008, she was named S&T Woman of the Year. She has been happily married to her husband, Michael Gueterman, for the past 29 years. The couple has two grown sons, who sometimes reminded their busy mom when they were growing up, “Remember, we’re your real kids!”

Wise advisor

Flexibility has been as important as balance in Mormile’s accomplishments, dating back to her rude awakening in that undergraduate chemistry class. Her switch to biology brought about a passion for the subject as well as for undergraduate research, and as a burgeoning desire to be a professor. She obtained her first degree while working her way through school on a student work appointment with the EPA laboratories across the street. She is still friends with her caring undergraduate advisor who recommended that she apply to the EPA, enabling her to continue her schooling.

A first-generation college student and Cincinnati native, Mormile decided to pursue additional degrees, and would have been content to stay where she was for her graduate work. Again, though, her advisor stepped in with wise counsel. Seeing her potential, he urged her to apply further from home, and told her he would tear up any application that she made to graduate school at her current institution. She ended up going to the University of Louisville, 100 miles away, which was a substantial move, she joked, “for a kid who, going to the Cincinnati Zoo, was a big deal!”

She focused on microbiology in Louisville and then went on to Norman, Okla., for her Ph.D. Her post doc work was done at the Pacific Northwest National Lab in Richland, Wash., where she was able to do cutting-edge research at Soap Lake on halophilic bacteria. Her graduate and post-doc work is still being cited 26 years later. Her research from Soap Lake was recently in the news regarding a discovery of a bacterium that can produce hydrogen, which has the potential of lessening the world’s dependence on oil in the future.

Choosing S&T

When Mormile looked for an institution to begin her academic career in 1999 after her post doc work, she knew excellence in teaching was going to be a non-negotiable. She found that emphasis in the S&T biological sciences department as well as the attractive prospect of developing a brand new master’s program. Mormile worked with Paula Lutz, Dave Westenberg and Marshal Porterfield, as well as the rest of the biological sciences department, to develop a proposal for this program.

Mormile has a simple answer about why she has received consistently high course evaluation scores from students throughout the years: “I care!” As she found life becoming busier moving through the professorial ranks, one of the things she vowed was to focus more on what students needed to get out of her classes. Her teaching philosophy was developed as a GTA in Louisville, where she stressed to students the importance of focusing on the big concepts and not as much memorization of each small detail. “Essentially, I’m providing them with the tools and ideas they need to be successful,” she said. “I try to remember that I’m really impacting this group of people.”

She has taught Introduction to Biological Sciences for the freshmen of the department, assisting growing numbers of students each year with foundational tools, such as building a resume and writing a personal statement, or figuring out where they want to focus on for their careers.

Mormile has mentored 16 OURE (Opportunities for Undergraduate Research Experience) students over the past seven years, and currently mentors two OURE students and one graduate student. Several others are volunteers and subsequently apply for their own OURE projects. Like those who mentored her, she stays in contact with many of her former students.

Amazing job

Recently Mormile was appointed as special assistant to the provost for faculty affairs, where she will assist with faculty awards, workload development, promotion and tenure, and other faculty issues. This position is a natural, as she has been involved previously with the campus’ promotion and tenure committee and helped younger faculty with questions about their dossiers and how they can improve their teaching and course evaluations.

When encouraging younger colleagues in the assistant professor stage, her advice is “they can’t be 100 percent at everything at the same time.” She says that there will be certain times that they will need to be extremely focused on a particular project for a period of time, such as getting a research proposal together, but then it is equally important to pull away and take time for family or other interests.

Mormile’s other interests include hiking, visiting state parks and cross-stitching, the latter very sparingly due to time constraints. Her husband recently bought her a new bike, so she would like to have more opportunities for the two of them to bike more of the Katy Trail. Don’t expect her to quit her day job anytime soon, though. “This is an amazing job!” she says with a broad smile. “It’s really good here. It’s the people who make it good.”