Queen of all trades

Willford speaks on her achievements at SRU and beyond

Published by Sophia Bills, Date: March 7, 2024
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Jennifer Willford is a certified yoga instructor, marathon runner and neuroscientist. When not on the mat or on the go, she can be found in the lab, researching and teaching psychology at SRU.

A woman in science

Among the many hats Willford wears, she is a woman who has been working in the STEM field for decades now. Originally a journalism major intending to carry on her family’s newspaper, she realized that her classes were the wrong fit for someone who had always enjoyed science. When changing her major to find the right fit, she came upon neuroscience.

“Neuroscience was attractive to me because it’s an interdisciplinary study of the brain,” she said. “When you are a neuroscientist, you really have to understand chemistry, you have to understand biology, you have to understand psychology and behavior…all of it from the cells to the people.”

An Ohio native, Willford obtained her undergraduate degree in neuroscience from Muskingum University. During her time there, she discovered what would become a long-lasting love for research.

Early on in her educational career, she had the opportunity to work in biology and psychology labs and drove to Columbus, Ohio twice a week to learn neural imaging.

“I was learning how to create new knowledge. That’s what research is, right? You’re creating new information in your field, and that was very exciting to me.”

Willford went on to earn her master’s degree and PhD from the University of Kentucky in experimental psychology, a field within neuroscience that focuses on behavior in neural studies.

In graduate school, she worked in an animal laboratory, studying the impact of prenatal drug exposure on development. This topic, known in the field as neurodevelopmental teratology, became a specialization of hers.

Then, in a postdoctoral fellowship with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, she worked on a similar project, this time studying humans. In her years there, she examined the impact of prenatal drug exposure during pregnancy.

Throughout her lab work, she began to notice that her favorite part of her job was collaborating with students to do hands-on learning. She also appreciates her mentors and values being a mentor to others.

“I had amazing, amazing women mentors,” Willford said. “I didn’t run into particular barriers or challenges related to being a woman, but I think I was buffered by having strong women mentorship in my development as a scientist and a professional.”

As she uncovered her love for teaching and interacting with students, she began looking for professor jobs, joining the SRU psychology department in 2012. She enjoys teaching and learning by doing rather than lecturing.

“I really like doing labs with the students where we can learn about something and then try it and experiment with it,” Willford said.

Over her years at SRU, she has seen much growth in the psychology department and developed a neuroscience program at the university.

A woman in leadership

In addition to teaching psychology, Willford has enjoyed working with students in her role as associate director of the Honors College since 2019. In this position, she has worked alongside Jason Hilton, the director, to reshape what the Honors College looks like.

“I got a phone call from Dr. Hilton, asking me if I might be interested in talking about taking on this associate director role,” Willford said. “We had a really long conversation about his strengths, my strengths and how we thought we might be able to work together.”

Upon Hilton’s decision to step down, Willford will ascend to the director role at the end of May. She follows a line of at least three men who last held the position.

Over the past five years, Willford and Hilton have worked closely together. They worked to develop holistic admissions criteria for students seeking to join the Honors College. They have found that this more inclusive model has brought diversity to their student body.

The pair also introduced outcomes for honors students, guided by the program’s values and mission.

“We were really focused on thinking about honors students as very well-rounded honors students, not just academically strong in their discipline but whole people who are motivated to make a difference in the world,” Willford said.

Willford discussed the specific expertise she brings to Honors College leadership. She said that Hilton was especially interested in bringing her onto the team to develop programming surrounding wellness and international travel.

Her background in international travel began in graduate school. She won an award to present her research in Copenhagen.

“I got the travel bug, and then after that, I was gonna go wherever I could,” she said.

When she started at Slippery Rock, Willford had taken a visiting professorship in Singapore for eight months. She described the experience as life-changing.

“I grew so much as a teacher by understanding another culture,” she said. “When I came home from that experience, I decided that I needed to make travel part of my toolbox when it comes to being a teacher.”

At SRU, Willford has facilitated study abroad trips in psychology and the Honors College.

Beginning last spring, she teaches an Honors course that learns about and travels to Barcelona at the end of the semester. The experience, open to Honors students, is meant to study one of the six honors outcomes, such as leadership or innovation, in a cross-cultural context.

With the Barcelona program in its second year, Willford discussed the connections the Honors College has made with universities and scholars abroad, describing the “richness” they add to the program.

“This year, we go back and can reconnect with them and also implement some of their ideas, which makes our program better.”

Of all the study abroad trips she has been a part of, Barcelona holds a special place for her.

“We spend an entire semester learning together, and then we travel together, and I think that’s very special,” she said.

She appreciates getting to know the students well before taking a trip together.

Looking into her future with the Honors College, Willford has hopes, goals and appreciation for getting to where she is.

“I feel like a lot of what I’ve done [with Honors] has allowed me to stay in alignment with my values…I think that’s what I’ll bring [to the director position.] It’s a leadership role for me. I’m excited about that,” Willford said. “It will allow me to grow as a person in my leadership abilities.”

As a leader and mentor, it means a lot to Willford to step into the director role.

“I’m now going to be working with a student body of over 600 kids and really have the opportunity to have a positive impact,” she said.

She aims to build upon what she and Hilton built together.

“I think we have a great foundation, and now I just want to see what we can do with it, how we can soar from here.”

One of her goals moving forward is to continue progress with diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. She also hopes to build community connections and partnerships on and off campus. In addition, increasing visibility for the Honors College is important to her.

A woman in wellness

Among her professional endeavors, wellness has always been a key value and emphasis for Willford. Her background in psychology allows her to understand the importance of taking care of one’s emotional and mental health.

Willford is a certified yoga instructor and helps to oversee the Honors College’s health and wellness subcommittee, planning wellness programming for the student body.

In addition, she is trained in life design at SRU. There is a class on campus that helps students plan or “design” their lives, applying design engineering concepts.

“I don’t think that people are gonna walk around happy all the time. That’s just not realistic,” Willford said. “But can we feel satisfied? Can we feel content? I think that’s the goal.”

Willford stays very active in her personal life, running marathons, swimming and biking.

She brings these aspects to the Honors College, creating a wellness challenge for students each semester and emphasizing the importance of physical, mental and all areas of wellbeing in students.

Throughout her life and work at SRU, Willford is guided by her values: education, wellness, travel, leadership and relationships. She is grateful to be among those whose careers align with and allow them to live out the things they care about most.

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