Ursula Shepherd

Ursula Shepherd
Ursula Shepherd hugs former student Justine Garcia.
Credit: Daniel Peck

"I wanted to be a great novelist, a doctor or a lawyer, never a college professor," said 2011 national award winner Ursula Shepherd in her acceptance speech at the U.S. Professors of the Year awards luncheon. "It's an accidental journey I won't take time to tell you about, but I will include one secret: I flunked out of college at 19, and the course that was the last straw was biology. Yet here I am."

Ursula started her career as a software developer but decided it wasn't fulfilling enough. She decided to take one course in biology—which then led to a doctorate in biology. In 1994, she became a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of New Mexico.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that when Ursula first started teaching, a professor gave her a great piece of advice. "He said, 'To be a great teacher, you have to be an actor, you have to be aware of your audience, and you have to be willing to make mistakes and take risks to fix them.'"

Since joining the University of New Mexico, Ursula has created an honors curriculum in biology and designed a research program in Australia for undergraduates. The international trip was funded through the National Science Foundation, which played an important role in allowing students from a range of economic backgrounds to participate, according to Inside Higher Ed. During the summer, she teaches natural history to middle and high school science teachers, and in the fall, she will teach an eight-week field course focused on arid land biology.

"I teach because here I can make a difference," said Ursula. "I believe every student who passes through my classroom has the ability to be outstanding."

One of her former students praises Ursula as a teacher that makes even non-science students understand difficult biology lessons. "She distilled concepts into their essence so even the novice among us could understand them ... Our lectures were not limited to classroom discussions, PowerPoint slides or dull textbooks. Rather, Dr. Shepherd took us into the field, where topics were transformed from abstract concepts into physical objects that we could see, smell and understand in their proper context." Another former student experienced the "magical and weird" beauty of Australia as well as "a very accurate imitation of a koala" thanks to Ursula.

This interactive, hands-on way of getting students to understand science is part of Ursula's teaching philosophy. "While most of my classes are based in biology, I am really about teaching the practice of thinking deeply and developing the habits, skills and practices that will allow every student to have access to any information and learning that he or she will ever want.

"Teaching is a vocation, not a job...To move from being a good teacher to a great one is a lifetime's work," Ursula wrote in her personal statement. "It cannot be rushed, and this goal is rooted in everything I do."

Know a great professor's story? Nominate him or her for a U.S. Professors of the Year award.

More on Ursula Shepherd

What is Expected of Twenty-First Century Honors Students: An Analysis of an Integrative Learning Experience, paper co-written by Ursula
Ursula's laboratory at the University of New Mexico

Honors professor awarded U.S. Professor of the Year, The Daily Lobo, Nov. 22, 2011
UNM's Shepherd named U.S. Professor of the Year, UNM Today, Nov. 17, 2011
Two women named professors of the year, WIA Report, Nov. 17, 2011