MTU’s Werner Named One of Michigan’s Distinguished Professors


Thomas Werner, associate professor of genetics and developmental biology in Michigan Technological University’s Department of Biological Sciences, has been recognized by the Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU) as one of three recipients of the Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year award. The award recognizes the outstanding contributions and dedication exhibited by the faculty from Michigan’s 15 public universities to the education of undergraduate students.

“Dr. Thomas Werner represents the best of teaching, research and dedication to student success,” said Daniel J. Hurley, CEO of MASU. “His approach to designing and teaching classes symbolizes the excellence in higher education for which Michigan’s public universities are globally renowned.” 

Werner designed the four different classes he teaches at Michigan Tech and is consistently ranked in the top 10% of instructors at the school. His passion for his work is infectious and he has earned Tech’s top teaching honor, receiving the Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award twice during his tenure — a feat only three other faculty members have accomplished in 70 years.

Werner has garnered nearly $900,000 in funding for his genetics research on the evolution and development of complex color patterns and mushroom toxin resistance in fruit flies, and he supported his undergraduate research assistants with grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

Werner also discovered a new Upper Peninsula fruit fly on a trip and named it Amiota tessa, after his undergraduate student Tessa Steenwinkel. Werner and Steenwinkel co-authored a two-book series of free, open-source textbooks on fruit flies. These open-source textbooks have been downloaded on all seven continents, helping students everywhere keep textbook fees down. 

Werner has mentored more than 100 undergraduates in his research lab and offers research opportunities to all students in his courses, even though he teaches some of the largest courses in the biological sciences department. He also encourages students to serve as lab managers, which gives them leadership experience they can bring with them into the post-graduation realm. Werner continuously puts the needs of his students first and works with them individually to help them accomplish their goals at Michigan Tech.  

“Dr. Werner is a passionate teacher and at the same time he is compassionate toward his students,” said Jacqueline Huntoon, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Michigan Tech. “This unique combination makes him a sought-after instructor among our student body. He is very knowledgeable in his field of specialization and immensely enthusiastic. His lectures are always well-prepared and are given in a manner that is easy to follow and comprehensible. He genuinely cares about how well students understand the material, which is made clear by the sheer amount of time he spends preparing his classes.” 

The two other recipients of the 2021 Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year award are Yunus Zeytuncu of University of Michigan-Dearborn and Tami Sivy of Saginaw Valley State University.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.