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Faculty Honored for Research, Teaching, and Service

Each year, Dean Theresa Lee and members of her cabinet, with help from department heads, recognize faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences for their excellence in teaching, research and creative activity, and lifetime achievements. 

Due to the ongoing pandemic, however, we were unable to host the annual awards banquet in-person. Each faculty member received a plaque and congratulations from the dean. We posted a video to the college YouTube channel here, which features each faculty award winner. 

This year, eight faculty in our department received awards for their research, teaching, and service to the university. 

Faculty Academic Outreach Research Awards

The academic outreach awards recognize extraordinary contributions of faculty to the public that occur as an outgrowth of academic pursuits and are related to the university’s academic mission. The Academic Outreach Research Award recognizes faculty whose research and creative activities advance knowledge through the pursuit of their scholarly interests while simultaneously addressing community problems and issues and benefiting the scholar, the discipline, the university, and society. 

Kimberly SheldonThis year, the college awarded an academic outreach research award to Kimberly Sheldon, assistant professor of ecology, who developed a research program that is advancing knowledge while simultaneously addressing a community issue through collaboration with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). Sheldon makes use of insects from the Southern Appalachians, including her dung beetle system, and climate change in the region to make her outreach research activities culturally and socially relevant to the EBCI. 

Sheldon received funding from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the UT Office of Community Engagement and Outreach to collaborate with the EBCI and the Office of Fish and Wildlife Management to provide summer scientific research opportunities for EBCI high school students. The culturally and socially relevant research experiences that Sheldon has developed and led helps students to see the relevance of STEM literacy in their own lives as well as the number of jobs that require it.

Faculty Academic Outreach Service Awards

The academic outreach awards recognize extraordinary contributions of faculty to the public that occur as an outgrowth of academic pursuits and are related to the university’s academic mission. The Academic Outreach Service Award recognizes faculty who apply their knowledge to the benefit of the community by helping to seek solutions to community problems and issues. Defined more specifically, outreach service extends the faculty’s disciplinary expertise acquired through research, scholarship, and creative activity to the community. 

This year, the college awarded an academic outreach service award to Professor Paul Armsworth, who brings mathematical, statistical, and computational tools to bear to help organizations trying to conserve species, habitats, and ecosystems to make more effective decisions. He works with a range of state and federal agencies, local, national and international nonprofits and for-profit companies with the goal of reducing their environmental impact. 

The same commitment to help seek solutions to community problems and issues is apparent through his service both within academia and to wider society. Beyond contributions made directly through his research, his service contributions to the wider society have included serving on the science advisory council for a major synthesis center whose mission is to see scientific results deployed to improve both nature and human well-being, and serving on major taskforces commissioned by the federal government. These taskforces provided policy guidance on how public lands should be valued in the federal balance sheet and how best to help fish, wildlife, water, land and people adapt to a changing climate.

“When there are so many great examples of outreach and service being undertaken within the College of Arts and Sciences, I feel really honored to have the scholarship that my students, colleagues, and I undertake highlighted in this way,” Armsworth said. “People sometimes talk about outreach and service as something distinct they do alongside their teaching and research. But I’ve always seen the three as a single package. The most interesting opportunities for teaching and research always seem to arise when we roll our sleeves up and look for ways to help people address the pressing, real-world challenges we face in society.”

Faculty Academic Outreach Teaching Awards

The academic outreach awards recognize extraordinary contributions of faculty to the public that occur as an outgrowth of academic pursuits and are related to the university’s academic mission. The Academic Outreach Teaching Award recognizes faculty who extend the university’s instructional capacity to provide learning opportunities to public audiences through workshops, public lectures, and other educational activities. Faculty may also perform outreach teaching by extending their classroom beyond the campus to engage their students in service learning.

This year, the college awarded an academic outreach teaching award to Jessica Budke, assistant professor and director of the University of Tennessee Herbarium. In her role of Herbarium director, Budke is training a new generation of undergraduate and graduate students in the preservation and use of natural history collections, welcoming community volunteers to work in the collection, and driving new approaches to update and make the collection even more useful to the academic and non-academic communities that it serves. She developed an internship program where undergraduate students receive credit in an independent study course for learning and applying curatorial skills that includes collecting, processing, preserving, cataloging, and filing of specimens in the herbarium natural history collection. She also encourages citizen science in the herbarium, welcoming community volunteers to be involved in work ranging from basic specimen processing to digitization and databasing of specimen data.

“I feel especially honored to have received this award from the college,” Budke said. “My teaching outreach has broadly focused on expanding people’s vision of natural history collections. They are often thought of as dusty collections of curiosities, but are actually dynamic resources we are using to answer important questions about conservation, invasive species, climate change, and discovering species new to science. I enjoy sharing hands on experiences with specimens that get people excited about learning more about them and engaging with them through online citizen science activities.”

Outstanding Service Award

Nina FeffermanNina Fefferman, professor of ecology, received the Outstanding Service Award, which recognizes extraordinary service in advancing the mission and goals of the college. 

During the past year, Fefferman took on an impressive level of service related to her expertise in modeling epidemiological events – specifically the COVID-19 pandemic. This work is a logical extension of her earlier work examining Zika and other mosquito-driven disease transmissions, the evolution and spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, Lyme disease risk, human cooperation in vector control, etc. As a result of her current work, she is also publishing several papers related to pandemic mitigation in a number of types of communities, as well as leveraging insights from prior similar events. 

She served the university by advising the COVID-19 Re-Imagining Fall Task Force and continued to monitor and model the COVID-19 infection data in the fall semester. Fefferman has been interview by six different television outlets, five podcasts, and numerous print media during the past year. She has managed this enormous service while continuing to manage six active grants, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as post-doctoral scholars. 

“I’m very grateful to receive this award,” Fefferman said. “This award reminds me how grateful I am to be in a community that inspires us to care about each other and work, in whatever capacity we each can, for each other’s lives to be better.”

While her level of service has been very high and extremely important in the last year, Fefferman has provided exceptional service to NIMBioS, NSF and NIH, and in a variety of editorial roles over the years, in addition to ongoing public service through public presentations and consultation with various organizations, including ACLU, Vera Institute of Justice, State of Vermont, and ongoing service to the CDC since 2009.

Excellence in Research Award/Creative Achievement Awards

We seek to recognize faculty members who excel in scholarship and creative activity while also being fully engaged in the other responsibilities of faculty jobs, primarily teaching and service. To this end, the college honors faculty in three stages of their research careers – early, mid, and senior – with awards for excellence in research or creative achievement, as well as honoring a faculty with an award for Distinguished Research Career at UT.

Brian O’Meara, professor of ecology, received a mid-career research award. O’Meara is an international leader in the creation, development, and application of phylogenetic methods to answer fundamental questions about the Tree of Life. His work in the areas of parameter inference in phylogenetic models and the study of macroevolutionary processes, particularly the association between diversification rates and continuously distributed trait evolution, is outstanding. He develops cutting edge statistical models, implements them in freely available software, and discusses their interpretation stressing their strengths and limitations in his publications. Further, he applies these methods to important problems in evolutionary biology, resulting in his exceptionally high impact in the field broadly, with contribution in both theory and practice. 

His contributions have pushed the theoretical underpinnings of phylogenetic theory forward in concert with development of methods. Due to the explosion in size of gene sequence-based comparative datasets and the rapid growth in computing power, phylogenetic models have necessarily become more complex. O’Meara is a clear leader among only a handful of scientists worldwide that have been developing and implementing such models. He is the recipient of $2.89M in external support. He has a prolific track record of mentoring in his 12 years at UT. He has mentored 16 postdoctoral fellows and graduated four PhD students who have gone on to successful careers.

“Brian is a generous collaborator with his mentees and members of the EEB community and beyond,” said Susan Kalisz, head of the EEB department. “He is a leader in EEB, serves as associate head, chairs the departmental Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and was recently elected president of the Society of Systematic Biologists.”

Karen W. Hughes, professor of ecology, received the Distinguished Research Career at UT award. Hughes is an internationally recognized scientist. Early in her career, Hughes brought her knowledge of plant tissue culture to the study of fungi, culturing individual fungal spores collected from wild populations across the globe and testing their breeding compatibility. She demonstrated that populations of fungi from different continents – originally considered the same species – represent distinct species unable to interbreed. Her findings transformed how mycologists view fungal species, demonstrating more extensive fungal diversity previously recognized. 

Her early work foreshadowed the revolution in molecular phylogenetics using DNA sequence-level data and she continues to extend these findings. Key to her success is her ability to coordinate multiple collaborators, including students, colleagues, and the public. Recently, Hughes spearheaded an NSF-funded research coordination network of 100 scientists called Deep Hyphae, which led to a major reassessment of the evolutionary history of fungi based on molecular phylogenetic data. Most recently, Hughes secured NSF funding to investigate fungal response to the Gatlinburg wildfires and coordinated and trained forays of professional and amateur (Discover Life in America and GSMNP interns) mycologists to collect post-fire fungi. One early finding reveals that some collections were unique, fire-adapted fungi, which persist within mosses and liverworts for long periods of time, then reproduce and spread when the habitat experiences a fire. Because fungi play critical roles as mutualistic partners in the roots of most plants, as well as in ecosystem functioning, her results have important applications in forestry and basic ecological studies. Hughes has been an exemplar of leadership, research, teaching, and outreach throughout her 47 years at UT.

James R. and Nell W. Cunningham Outstanding Teaching Award 

The James R. and Nell W. Cunningham Outstanding Teaching Award recognizes faculty excellence in teaching. The honor is awarded to a tenured faculty member who demonstrates outstanding classroom teaching. This year, the college recognized Edward Schilling and Urmila Seshagiri for their outstanding teaching. 

Often when we envision a professor who has been teaching for more than 40 years, we think of yellowed note pads or dull lectures. Edward Schilling, professor of ecology, was nominated for this award because as teaching circumstances evolve, so does he, and these changes are solely because of his dedication to student engagement and learning in his courses. His teaching has always been exemplary, but he has shown great adeptness at transitioning to online teaching over the last year that students have truly appreciated. 

As someone who has observed his teaching said, “he takes great pains to make the material he teaches relevant and connected to issues students care about, whether it’s biodiversity, or agriculture, or being able to identify plants in the field. Ed meets the students where they are, and leads them to greater understanding and appreciation for biology.”

In all of his teaching feedback there are consistent themes about his teaching: Professor Schilling is incredibly organized and well prepared and provides students with a hands-on and immersive educational experience because he believes that students who are engaged with the material are more likely to learn the material. 

“It was an incredibly uplifting feeling to learn that I had been selected to receive the Cunningham Teaching Award,” Schilling said. “UT has many outstanding teachers, so to be recognized in this way is truly an honor that I will cherish.”

Faculty Advising Awards

The college recognizes excellence in undergraduate advising, providing rewards for past achievements and encouraging future resourceful and creative efforts in undergraduate advising.

Jennifer Schweitzer, professor of ecology, is recognized for serving as a tireless advocate for undergraduates within her department. Her commitment to student success is demonstrated through her relationships with individual students as well in her associate head role where she ensures that the student experience is the focal point of all conversations regarding curriculum development, teaching rotation, and advising practices. Recently, she developed a resource for the faculty titled “Best Practices in Advising/Mentoring” to assist all faculty in their mentor role with undergraduates. 

Schweitzer also serves as an outstanding mentor to the students in her research lab, where more than 80 percent of the undergraduates who have worked with her have gone on to graduate or professional school.  

“Great mentors bring undergraduates into their lab and involve them in all aspects of being a scientist,” Kalisz said. “A really outstanding mentor like Jen goes above and beyond by mentoring in professional development, choosing a career path, getting into graduate school, navigating work-life balance, and being a woman in science.”  

Kalisz also notes Professor Schweitzer is one of the only faculty members she knows who has a list on their CV of all of the undergraduate students she has advised, including the time span of the relationship and whether or not the student graduated.

“Advising students at UT is such an important part of my job and one that I truly love,” Schweitzer said. “In helping EEB students navigate the biology-EEB curriculum and gain professional development skills I hope we are assisting students in finding and reaching their career goals so they can make a difference in the world. EEB students are so motivated, work so hard, and have such high aspirations for themselves and their futures. It is amazing to see all they achieve. I am very proud to be part of this department and grateful for this kind award.”

Congratulations to all our faculty on your outstanding achievements!