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Susan Bonner-Weir, Ph.D, Receives William Silen Lifetime Achievement in Mentoring Award

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Researchers are often praised for the number of publications they generate or grants they receive. But passing on knowledge and fostering a love of science in the next generation is a vital, often overlooked accomplishment. This Tuesday, Susan Bonner-Weir, Ph.D., Senior Investigator in the Section on Islet Cell & Regenerative Biology at Joslin Diabetes Center and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, received the William Silen Lifetime Achievement in Mentoring Award.

“I’m really excited by it,” says Dr. Bonner-Weir. “I knew Dr. Silen and I’m quite honored to receive this award in his name.”

The Lifetime Excellence in Mentoring Award, established by Harvard Medical School in 1997, was renamed in 2001 to acknowledge Dr. Silen’s commitment to teaching students, residents and faculty. The award is given to Harvard Medical School instructors who go above and beyond their teaching duties to nurture the next generation of doctors and researchers.

Dr. Bonner-Weir first came to the Joslin Diabetes Center as a post-doc in in 1974 and then returned as a researcher a decade later. Her research has focused on islets and beta cells—both understanding how they function inside the body and how that changes as the body ages. She has also made important contributions to the Joslin Medalist study, which follows patients who have lived with insulin dependent type 1 diabetes for more than fifty years.

She joined Harvard Medical School in 1986 teaching first year medical students histology, microscopy, gross anatomy, as well as radiological anatomy. She also met with small tutorial groups of seven to eight students to analyze case studies of patients with anatomical irregularities.

“We try to show how the body is put together and how it functions from studying the architecture of different tissues,” says Dr. Bonner-Weir.

After twenty years of juggling multiple classes, Dr. Bonner-Weir has scaled back to just teaching first year histology and focusing on her lab research at Joslin.

That doesn’t mean she’s scaled back on student mentorship. In addition to the post-docs and fellows working in her lab, Dr. Bonner-Weir hosts summer internships to expose young students to bench science. She accepts first year medical students, undergraduates, and even high school students into her lab.

“We want them to understand enough about research so that they become as excited about it as we are,” says Dr. Bonner-Weir. “If we expose them to it they might want to do more.”

Cristina Aguayo-Mazzucato, M.D., Ph.D., an Associate Researcher at Joslin Diabetes Center and an Instructor at Harvard Medical School, started as a post-doc in Dr. Bonner-Weir’s lab before carving out her own niche in beta cell research. “I feel extremely fortunate to have her as my mentor and throughout the years she has become a cornerstone of my professional and personal life,” says Dr. Aguayo-Mazzucato.

A unique aspect to Dr. Bonner-Weir’s work is her ability to reach not only her trainees, but those working with her husband, Gordon Weir, M.D., Diabetes Research and Wellness Foundation Chair at Joslin Diabetes Center and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The husband and wife team have collaborated on numerous projects over the years, as well as shared a lab, creating an unusual teaching environment.

“I have mentored a lot of his students in certain topics and he’s done the same thing for mine,” says Dr. Bonner-Weir. “It’s been a unique situation.”

These students flock from near and far. Dr. Bonner-Weir’s lab has hosted students from the United States, Korea, Sweden, France and the Netherlands, among others.

Both Dr. Bonner-Weir and Dr. Weir were recently invited to attend the Korean Diabetes Association’s annual meeting where they reconnected with many former students.

“It was really exciting because so many had become head of endocrinology or president of their hospital,” she says. “It’s incredible what they have been able to accomplish.”

Dr. Weir feels strongly that his wife has not only played a part in educating his students, but inspired and supported decades of his own research. “It is important to recognize that we benefit from mentoring throughout our careers,” he says. “Indeed, while Susan has provided exceptional guidance for many of my trainees, she has served as the most important mentor of my career.”

When asked how it feels to be a mentor to so many people over the years, Dr. Bonner-Weir replies that it’s not so different from raising your own children. “You nurture them along, then you push them out of the nest and hope they fly,” says Dr. Bonner Weir. “And you get very excited when they not only fly but soar.”

Dr. Aguayo-Mazzucato says of her long time mentor, “Dr. Bonner-Weir is approachable, understanding and immensely generous with her time and knowledge. She’s an exceptional scientist and an extraordinary human being. Without a doubt, she deserves the William Silen Mentorship Award.”


Page last updated: October 16, 2019