Nancy Williams Walls

Dr. Nancy Williams Walls broke the glass ceiling when she entered the University of Akron as a 16-year-old in 1946, then again when she transferred to U-M, where she earned a B.S., master’s degree, and Ph.D. in microbiology. She ignored stereotypes again when she became a faculty member at the Georgia Institute of Technology in its Engineering Experiment Station, and yet again when she became the first woman to head a department at Georgia Tech in 1969.

She spent her long career following a passion for science and protecting the Earth and its flora and fauna.

She blazed many trails, but Walls never forgot the struggles she’d encountered as a young female scientist. Accordingly, she gave more than $500,000 for the LSA Nancy Williams Walls Undergraduate Scholarship with the desire that it go to students who could also break glass ceilings in science and research. But Walls wanted to do even more, so she established a bequest of over $2.7 million for the Medical School for the Nancy Williams Walls Professorship and a doctoral research fund in Microbiology and Immunology. She specified that after it was created, any excess funds should help support graduate student research in LSA.

In 2004, she began funding the Young Scientists Symposium (now called Early Career Scientists Symposium) because she was so impressed by the vision of the chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the time, Deborah Goldberg. Walls originally planned to fund the symposium for "two or three years," but continued her sponsorship through 2013. As hoped, the symposium gained in size and prestige each year and provides a prominent platform for early career researchers that might not otherwise be available. She provided $150,000 for the Early Career Scientist Symposium over the years. The 14th annual Early Career Scientists Symposium is currently being planned for March 2018 on the Ecology and Evolution of Color.

When Walls passed, her estate established a $1.225 million endowment, the Dr. Nancy Williams Walls Award for Field Research fund in LSA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). This competitive award supports graduate students engaged in field research on biodiversity or climate change issues.

Graduate students in EEB received the first tranche of awards last year. Fifteen budding scientists pursuing knowledge about our planet received funding from the Walls Award.

Leslie Decker's research featured in a UM annual research report

“Thanks to the support of the Nancy W. Walls Award for Field Research, I was able to conduct a field experiment exploring how global change alters the immune function of monarch butterflies through changes in milkweed host-plant diet quality,” said EEB graduate student Leslie Decker. “Toxic compounds found in the milkweed plants that monarchs consume convey increased protection against parasites. However, elevated CO2 reduces the medicinal and nutritional quality of milkweed foliage. My work this past field season measured how the monarch immune response changes in conjunction with this loss in the protective quality of surrounding milkweed plants. This project involved rearing nearly 500 butterflies on milkweed grown under present and future concentrations of CO2. Because of this large scale, I would not have been able to conduct the project, had it not been for the support of the Walls research grant.”

Diarmaid Ó Foighil, professor and chair of EEB, said that the Walls award is transformative because it expands the scope of individual field research projects. “Already, in its inaugural year, it has supported 15 students in their research, but this is only the beginning. Its cumulative impact will grow from year to year, and it is inspiring to contemplate the hundreds of graduate students who will benefit from Dr. Nancy Williams Walls' generosity and vision over the coming decades, and the contributions they will make to science and society,” said Ó Foighil.

Inaugural recipients’ research projects span the globe, with research conducted closer to home at LSA’s Biological Station and the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and beyond to Mexico, Peru, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Hawaii.

“Graduate students in EEB study fundamental scientific questions about how natural ecosystems and communities function and have evolved,” says Ó Foighil. “Collectively, their research spans many biomes and involves significant fieldwork, with data collected directly from nature.”

During her lifetime, Walls built a legacy of trailblazing and a love for the Earth. Her bequest to fund graduate research in LSA ensures that her incredible legacy endures long into the future.

Read more about Nancy Walls in previous EEB web news: In memoriam: alumna Dr. Nancy Walls: a lifetime of adventure and generosity