Willis Passionate About Biology, Teaching
If the two crocodile skulls sitting on his desk don’t speak to his passion, nothing does.
In 1988, a 20-year-old Ray Willis joined the U.S. Navy, not sure he’d ever make it to college. The young man hadn’t done well in high school and received his diploma just before sailing away with the Navy, interested in becoming a scuba diving instructor.
Eighteen years later, Willis graduated with his Ph.D. in biological sciences from Texas Tech University, and in 2010, came to work for the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.
“In high school, I was more bored than anything, and I had no one to push me,” he said. “In college, it was a lot different. I was taking classes I was interested in, and I was paying for it.”
He joins the staff as an assistant professor of biology but will teach a variety of science classes. During the last four years, Willis has been doing post-doctoral research in cell physiology and molecular biophysics at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. While he was there, he studied protein isoforms in under-represented animal lineages and how mutations affected protein performance in different environments.
“I’m really excited to get back in the classroom,” he said. “I love to interact with the kids. I want to be the one who gets the kids excited in biology and maybe change their careers.”
Willis obviously cares deeply about teaching and learning, said longtime faculty member Dr. Dex Marble, who has returned to USAO this year as vice president for academic affairs.
“Dr. Willis is the perfect addition to our faculty,” Marble said. “His research has given him the expertise, and his love for teaching gives him the kind of connectivity we seek at USAO. The liberal arts involves breadth and depth, the kind that Dr. Willis brings to the classroom.”
While Willis enjoys numerous aspects of biology, he is particularly interested in genetics and evolution of species. When choosing his Ph.D. focus, he was torn between herpetology — the study of reptiles and amphibians — and paleontology — the study of prehistoric life. Instead of forcing himself to choose, he decided to study living crocodiles with a strong background in crocodilian paleontology.
“It’s something different,” he said, sitting at his new USAO desk, which is bare except for two crocodile skulls. “It really appealed to me.”
Willis got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas.
Willis was looking for a university in a small town close to Texas, where he was living.
“When I saw the (USAO) job announcement ... it seemed like it was made for me,” he said.
Unfortunately for the Willis family, he had to move to Chickasha alone. His wife, Tish, and their three children — 3-year-old Caitlyn and 5-month-old twins Conner and Courtney — will remain in Lubbock, Texas, for the next year.
Despite missing his family, Willis said teaching is the perfect job for him. Fall classes began Aug. 30 at USAO.
“You learn the best when you teach it,” he said. “To get paid to learn, to me, is the best job in the world.”