He finds ‘the beauty in parasites’
And in doing so, Vasyl Tkach has earned scientific renown, the loyalty of students – and now, the highest academic honor at UND
Already one of the University’s most honored professors, Vasyl Tkach got tears in his eyes when he learned at a departmental meeting that he’d been named a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor at UND.
“I tell everyone how great this department is,” said Biology Professor Tkach, his voice shaking. “Without this group of people here, I know I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.
“I mean, you could just close your eyes and point your finger in any direction, and you’d be pointing at someone who deserves this award. Thank you all very, very much.”
Ike Schlosser, retired UND biology professor and Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Emeritus, smiled and gently “pointed” the conversation right back at Tkach. “You know, Vasyl, your story is an amazing one,” Schlosser said.
“You grew up in a very poor household in Ukraine; yet here, you have worked yourself to be one of the top parasitologists in the world. And that’s quite an accomplishment — really, an amazing accomplishment.
“We’re all so proud of what you’ve done.”
Highest academic honor
The Chester Fritz Distinguished Professorship is UND’s highest academic honor. The award was established with an endowment gift from the late University benefactor Chester Fritz (1892-1983).
And traditionally, the honoree is surprised in the classroom or a departmental meeting by the president, provost and other leaders stepping through the door, ready to make the announcement. It wasn’t possible to make such a visit in person this year, but President Armacost’s showing up in a Biology Department Zoom meeting in mid-April made for just as memorable an event.
“One of the most important elements of being a professor at UND is the opportunity to receive the recognition of your peers,” Armacost said.
“And one of the honors of the Chester Fritz Distinguished Professors is that they get to select new Chester Fritz Distinguished Professors.
“It is my honor to present to you, Professor Tkach, on behalf of the Chester Fritz Distinguished Professors, the news that you can now count yourself among them, as a recipient of UND’s highest academic award. Congratulations!”
And with that, Tkach’s colleagues in the UND Biology Department burst into applause.
Tkach graduated from Uzghorod State University in Ukraine and earned his doctoral degree at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. He has done fieldwork in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Kenya, Laos, Malawi, Nicaragua, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine and Vietnam, among other countries.
In the nomination packet that went before the award’s selection committee, Schlosser described the traits that make Tkach stand out.
Tkach is the current president of the American Society of Parasitologists. That’s “a very big deal in the world of very tiny things,” as a UND Today story put it last year.
But that title is only the start, Schlosser noted in his nomination letter.
Tkach’s research contributions “are truly worldwide in scope,” Schlosser wrote.
“He has published nearly 200 papers since coming to UND in 2003, which is likely a stronger publication record than any current or previous UND faculty. Those papers are highly cited (more than 700 citations just last year), indicating their broad impact on the discipline. …
“He has done more international research than probably any faculty in the history of UND, including doing research on all continents and co-authoring papers with colleagues from 30 countries. He has received multiple UND, regional, national and international awards for his research, including the 2017 Henry Baldwin Ward Medal, the most prestigious research award by the American Society of Parasitologists.”
But Tkach’s most striking attribute is that his success is multidimensional, Schlosser wrote.
“His classroom teaching and student mentorship activities span all levels, ranging from local high school students to international post-docs. He has taught multiple, heavily enrolled undergraduate classes that consistently receive strong student evaluations. … While doing this, he has individually mentored the research of more than 60 undergraduate students … (and) trained nine post-doctoral researchers from eight different countries.”
Moreover, “Dr. Tkach has a strong record of service at all levels, from the department to the university level and professional community. …
“In sum, Dr. Vasyl Tkach has an exceptional record in all areas of faculty responsibility,” a record reflecting local, national and international impact and recognition. “It would be very fitting if Dr. Tkach delivered his Presidential Address to the American Society of Parasitologists later this year as a University of North Dakota Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor,” Schlosser wrote.
‘The most influential mentor’
The 13 administrators, colleagues, fellow parasitologists and former students who wrote supporting letters wholeheartedly agreed.
“I can proudly say that Dr. Vasyl Tkach was the most influential mentor I had in my college career,” wrote Second Lt. Aivaras Barkaitis, U.S. Army, and a graduate of UND.
Tkach’s influence “has inspired me to go beyond the standard in not only his classroom but also my life. … This impact has been transferable to the things I do, in school, life and my service in the U.S. Armed Forces.”
Wrote Dr. Andrew Mills, UND ‘11, “I am currently in my final year of training as a reconstructive microsurgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Looking back, I can honestly say my experience working with Dr. Tkach was paramount to where I am today, and I am forever grateful.”
In her letter, Dr. LeAnne Froese ‘05 attributes her decision to apply to and attend veterinary school to Tkach’s mentorship and influence. “Vasyl taught my parasitology class,” Froese wrote.
“He talked about parasites with such enthusiasm. There are not too many people in this world who can find the beauty in parasites, but it soon became one of my favorite classes. His excitement for learning and all things nature was contagious.”
Let us close with an extended quotation from the letter by Dr. Eric Strand. After graduating from UND in 2009, Strand earned his DDS from the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.
“In my second year of school (at UND), I decided that I would like to work as an undergraduate research assistant and went into Vasyl’s office unannounced and asked if he had any openings. He agreed, and I was in his lab within a week.
“One of my first impressions of Vasyl’s character also happened at that time, when I was preparing samples for PCR testing, and managed to contaminate — and utterly ruin — an entire specimen that he had personally collected from Australia the year before. It was practically irreplaceable.
“Vasyl was not outwardly aggravated at all, but commented that he could not fault a student for making an error out of inexperience, but one should never make the same mistake a second time. That was it. I was more fastidious and a bit wiser thereafter.”
Tkach’s lab “particularly resonated with me because I am a first-generation college graduate from a farming family in rural northwestern Minnesota,” Strand continued.
“He is brilliant and does rigorous academic work, but is also accessible in a very egalitarian style. It fits well in North Dakota. He once quipped to me that he appreciated teaching at UND because unlike many institutions, the 4.0 students also know how to hunt.”
In sum, Strand wrote, “I have met many clever people in my life as a student and practitioner, but Vasyl stands out as someone with a savant level intellect who also maintains the common touch and a general interest in fostering students.
“The University of North Dakota is fortunate to have him on faculty.”