Published: April 01, 2022
Bridgette Froeschke Recognized as 2022 Faculty Mentor of the Year for Florida
When Bridgette Froeschke, associate professor of biology, meets a new first-year student, she doesn’t just see the uncertainty in their eyes. She sees a load of potential. This perspective is one of the reasons Froeschke was named the 2022 Faculty Mentor of the Year by the Florida Undergraduate Research Association (FURA).
FURA started the Mentor of the Year program to recognize the amazing contributions mentors make on the lives of their students in Florida. Candidates are nominated by students who feel their mentors have significantly impacted their lives while supporting their undergraduate research projects.
The committee selected Froeschke because her students spoke highly of her, in terms of how she helped them develop their research skills, says Wes Lewis, chair of the faculty mentor selection committee. “The nominator noted that Dr. Froeschke ‘pushed them to go out of their comfort zone and accomplish things they never thought they could.’”
Not only is Froeschke having a positive impact on her students, but her research could have a positive impact on all of Tampa Bay. Her lab focuses on testing bodies of water around the bay for different kinds of bacteria to measure pollution. The state of Florida monitors only certain kinds of bacteria in the larger beaches, while smaller beaches aren’t monitored at all.
“One of the main sites we work at is Gandy Beach, which is not monitored. When we’re done with sampling, we’re going to be writing letters to convince Florida to monitor that beach,” says Froeschke.
Froeschke created a genuine “lab family” with her students. Just like any other social setting, people need a sense of belonging and support in the classroom, too. When she and her students aren’t in the lab, they’re bonding with monthly dinners, trips to Sky Zone trampoline park and celebrating milestones.
“When they join my research lab, I tell them in the beginning — you are now part of my family, you are treated as a family member and you’re going to get as much attention as I can give you,” says Froeschke. “A lot of them are away from home and don’t have any family with them. I think that feeling of a family atmosphere helps them feel like they belong somewhere.”
Seeing her students evolve and grow has been one of the real joys of her job, Froeschke says.
“I try to get my research students young, like first-years or sophomores. Watching them develop from being scared and shy into a professional running the lab in just a short amount of time is mind-blowing to me,” says Froeschke.
It’s that kind of rewarding feeling that brought Froeschke to UT. She was originally at the University of South Florida, but at bigger universities, faculty members typically work with post-doctoral and doctoral students, rather than undergraduates. She knew she wanted a direct faculty-undergraduate mentorship, and UT stood out because it doesn’t yet have a graduate biology program.
“I had a group of faculty members when I was an undergrad who really believed in me and guided me toward what I ended up doing later in life, so I wanted to return to that,” says Froeschke. “As an undergrad, that’s when you determine if you have a passion for what you’re hoping to do with your life. I wanted to be a part of encouraging people to follow their dreams, and show them that as a female, you can do all of it.”
Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed among the UT faculty, either. “She has created a supportive community of research students — you can tell that students in her lab enjoy working together,” says Eric Freundt, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry and associate professor of biology. “They also regularly give fantastic presentations, which shows that Dr. Froeschke works with them to develop their communication skills.”
Freundt also notes that students from her lab are regularly successful in applying for the undergraduate research and inquiry grant and the summer undergraduate research fellowship. Instead of her students doing whatever she tells them, Froeschke focuses on giving them the tools to think and act for themselves.
“We do field work out in the environment, and my samples don’t always do what we think they should,” says Froeschke. “Being able to think through that and solve those problems gives them a leg up on most undergrads.”
One of those lucky undergrads, Ella Hampson ’22, will be leaving the team after graduation in May, but she credits her experience with Froeschke as the reason she was accepted into graduate school at the University of Hawaii. Froeschke taught Hampson everything she needed to know about lab techniques, but she feels most fortunate to have developed a friendship with Froeschke.
“Last year for my birthday, Dr. Froeschke and her family brought the whole team to Gandy Beach to enjoy a fun afternoon filled with home-baked goods, kayaking and crab-catching. You will often find her extremely intelligent children helping us in the lab, followed by a pizza party next to the Hillsborough River,” says Hampson. “I am very grateful that Dr. Froeschke was so willing to welcome us into her family and I know I can go to her with anything.”
Story by Madeline McMahon
Photos by Drew McDougall '23