Justine Garcia, former student of Ursula Shepherd
2011 Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year winner
It is my honor today to introduce Dr. Ursula Shepherd.
There are many qualities that the award recipients here today share: a love of learning, a passion for teaching and a commitment to their students. But many teachers have these qualities, so what makes Dr. Shepherd stand out? What makes her a national Professor of the Year? Well, she has one big advantage—she holds class not in a classroom but on Australian beaches, the Andes Mountains and the desert Southwest.
Dr. Shepherd believes in learning by doing, a skill that is not emphasized much in college classrooms. She is not content to just give reading assignments or tests or papers or presentations. Ursula wants students to come up with their own questions, and she encourages this by taking them out into the field (although she still also gives reading assignments and tests and papers and presentations). She also believes that failure is one of the best teachers and often encourages students to "see what happens."
Ursula will never hesitate to discuss a problem with a student, but she will never provide a pre-determined path. Of course, I didn't know any of this when I enrolled in Ursula's biodiversity of Australia class, an intense, field-based research class. Like many students, I just wanted to go to Australia! However, I got more than I bargained for in Ursula's class. I experienced the magical and weird beauty of Australia and its flora and fauna, but I also learned how to investigate that beauty in a systematic and meaningful way. Most memorably, I also learned Ursula does a very accurate imitation of a koala and that she is a pretty good wrestler—even in beach sand.
Ursula also runs a research lab. Ursula believes that a scientist should be motivated by a deep interest and love of nature, and she encourages students to develop their own projects in an area that interests them—even if they are on the edge of her expertise. Ursula's treatment of undergraduates as mature and capable scientists allows them to develop advanced skills and to take ownership in their projects. A professor visiting Ursula's lab once commented that her students were working on some of the most innovative and far-reaching projects he had ever seen for undergrads. Though I am sure this advising technique requires a greater commitment by Ursula, the pay-off is evident in the success of her students and their admiration for her.
After having Ursula as both a teacher and an advisor, I am now proud to call her my friend and collaborator. Dr. Shepherd has played an indispensable role in my development as an independent thinker and researcher. I am now pursuing questions similar to those I worked on in Ursula's lab for my dissertation work, and Ursula and I continue to work together. It should be obvious that I can never fully thank Ursula for the knowledge and skills she has given me. Please join me in congratulating her as a national U.S. Professor of the Year!
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