Psychology alum Bill Jenkins honors his Ph.D. adviser

| Mon, 08/06/12

When Bill Jenkins came to FSU as an undergraduate in 1970, he had some financial support from his parents but knew that he would have to fund a lot of his education himself. Part-time jobs and summer work made a difference, but to find all the funding he needed, he had to turn to the university itself for help.

“The staff providing student services that helped with identifying work-study positions or off-campus positions was fantastic,” he recalls. “I had the sense that these folks really cared for the students and their success. Whenever I needed their help, I got it.”

He found the same kind of support in his academic life in the Department of Psychology.

Bill Jenkins (left) with his Ph.D. advisor, R. Bruce Masterton. Jenkins earned his Ph.D. in 1980.

“The faculty made science interesting and fun,” Jenkins says. “They challenged our intellectual development. I feel that Florida State University really prepared me for life as a scientist but also with a strong sense of the desire to help others with that science.”

Helping others is exactly what he’s done — for years in his work with the educational software company Scientific Learning, and more recently by helping the university that helped him. Most recently, Jenkins has directed $600,000 through an estate gift to supplement his original $300,000 outright contribution, which established the R. Bruce Masterton Endowed Professorship.

It was in large part his relationship with Masterton, who taught psychology at FSU from 1966 until his death in 1996, that inspired Jenkins’s generosity.

“He had a rapport with students that challenged their interest in knowledge about how the brain works,” Jenkins says. “Bruce was a great mentor — he was always friendly but also challenged you to learn more. Also, I would say that both Bruce and his wife, Pauline, made you feel like you were part of their family.”

Jenkins remembers Masterton, a renowned psychobiologist, as an equally dedicated scholar and teacher who pushed his students to excel not just in the scientific part of their work.

“Bruce had a real love of scholarship and writing,” Jenkins says. “I think most of his graduate students would recall the interactions over our various papers and the number of rewrites required until the content was ‘just right.’”

Jenkins valued Masterton as a mentor so much that he stayed at FSU after finishing his bachelor’s degree, earning his master’s degree in 1976 and his Ph.D. in 1980.

After Jenkins earned his Ph.D., he did postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) with Professor Michael M. Merzenich, a leading researcher in auditory neuroscience. This time, Jenkins had no need to worry with part-time jobs or work-study programs, as his work was supported by a prestigious National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health. Jenkins eventually became a research associate at UCSF and later a faculty member.

Jenkins continued to work with Merzenich at UCSF, their research focusing on brain plasticity and the effects of behavior in shaping physiological changes in the brain that also result in changes in behavior.

The pair decided to apply their research to practical problems. They wanted to train the brain to better process language while improving foundational cognitive skills. From that initiative, Scientific Learning, an educational software company founded by Jenkins and Merzenich along with fellow scientists Paula A. Tallal and Steven L. Miller, was born. Jenkins now serves as Scientific Learning’s chief scientific officer, and the company’s products have been used by more than 3 million students in 44 countries.

After all his success since leaving FSU, Jenkins still gives a lot of credit to his alma mater and to the professors, especially Masterton, who gave him a solid foundation in his discipline. Jenkins’s gift is already having an impact on maintaining that tradition of solid instruction. The new professorship named for Masterton was awarded to psychology Professor Rick Hyson in Spring 2012.

“I am extremely honored that my colleagues selected me to be named the inaugural Masterton Professor, and I cannot thank Bill Jenkins enough for creating this endowment in Bruce’s honor,” says Hyson. “Bruce was a big reason why I applied for a job here and a big reason why I came.”

For Jenkins, the decision to support the psychology department was easy.

“I felt that Florida State University and Dr. Bruce Masterton had done so much to help me develop intellectually and professionally,” he says. “I wanted to give something back to help keep that tradition of scholarship and an interest in the sciences of brain and behavior part of the fabric of FSU.”

Shown at top: Bill Jenkins (second from left) attends the Spring 2012 ceremony to award the first R. Bruce Masterton Endowed Professorship to Rick Hyson (far right). With them are Masterton's son Alex (left) and widow, Pauline.