Radford biology faculty earns national student mentoring honors

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Radford University’s Sara O'Brien, assistant professor of biology, has won the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) Division of Biology Early Career Mentoring Award.

The national award highlights O’Brien’s long-term efforts in supervising undergraduate research students. She was selected from a nationwide pool of nominees.

"It is a most exciting thing - to see students become scientists," said O’Brien, who works with students in her own research initiatives, as part of the Radford Ecophysiology Lab and as a counselor at the university’s annual Summer Bridge program for aspiring high school-age scientists. "Mentoring allows me to watch them blossom and ask their own questions about science."

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At a recent Undergraduate Research Forum, Sara O'Brien, assistant professor of biology, and Assistant Professor of Geospatial Science Stockton Maxwell listen to presentations by Radford's student researchers and scientists.

The Council on Undergraduate Research, of which Radford is an enhanced insitutional member, and its affiliated colleges, universities and individuals focus on providing research and scholarly opportunities for faculty and students at all institutions serving undergraduate students. CUR believes that faculty members enhance their teaching and contribution to society by remaining active in research and by involving undergraduates in it.

“The Division received many very deserving applications, but yours rose to the top based on your achievements, and the letters of support by your students and colleague,” said Michael Palladino, the Biology Division chair in the announcement letter.

At Radford, Undergraduate research is recognized as a high-impact practice with proven positive benefits for the students who engage in it.

“Her mentoring contributions go far beyond the walls of the biology department. Sara has important impacts on the campus as a whole,” said Assistant Provost for Academic Programs Jeanne Mekolichick who nominated her for the award. “She embodies excitement and passion for research, civic responsibility and engagement, and the value of diversity. She is the epitome of an undergraduate research mentor, changing the trajectory of students’ lives by action and example.”

O’Brien received her doctorate in zoology from the University of Washington and began working with undergraduates first at Marian University and then Radford University.

O’Brien has mentored 34 students and supported student presentations at the local, regional and national levels. One student nominator said that O’Brien "always wanted what I wanted for myself (albeit a wiser version)", and that O’Brien "helped me push through my own self-doubt and thoughts that I would never be smart enough to accomplish what I have."Her colleagues nominated her because "mentoring undergraduates is how Sara thinks about her work as a professional."

"I hope to help my students get the full set of tools - writing, presenting, analyzing, budgeting, delving into scientific literature, troubleshooting so they become capable, competitive candidates who stand out as scientists," she said. 

Jan 7, 2016