By Brance D. Arnold
When Dr. Megan Wise de Valdez first received the news she was selected as a 2022 Piper Professor, she felt both excitement and relief. Being named a Piper Professor was not only important for Dr. Wise de Valdez, a Texas A&M University-San Antonio (A&M-San Antonio) associate professor of biology and biology program coordinator, but recognized the passion she holds for teaching and mentoring her students.
“What was unique was that I received the news through old-fashioned mail sent to my home address back in March, with instructions not to tell anyone until May 2! I thought, ‘How in the world am I supposed to keep something this big and wonderful a secret from everyone who would know what it means?’” said Dr. Wise de Valdez, who has been with A&M-San Antonio for 12 years. “My second reaction was an odd sense of relief. It wasn’t relief that I had finally found out I had received this honor, but a relief that I was being recognized for something I put my heart and soul into and that is rarely acknowledged at this scale.”
The Piper Professor Award Becomes Official
Dr. Wise de Valdez is one of only 10 professors awarded the distinction in the State of Texas and the first A&M-San Antonio professor to receive the distinction while at the University. The official announcement was made to the University community on May 2 (read the press release). Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president of A&M-San Antonio, presented the award to Dr. Wise de Valdez during a ceremony held May 5 on campus. In attendance to celebrate the momentous occasion was Dr. Debra Feakes, dean for the College of the Arts and Sciences at A&M-San Antonio, who was named a 2016 Piper Professor while at Texas State University.
“As a young university, A&M-San Antonio is breaking ground on so many fronts. Our accomplishments in scholarly/creative activities, educational access, and community partnerships have been highlighted in so many ways,” said Feakes. “Having our first (of hopefully many) Piper Professors recognizes the tremendous accomplishments of our faculty in the classroom and the lasting impact that we have on our students as educators.”
Established in 1958, the award is bestowed annually to outstanding professors for their exceptional teaching at the collegiate level. Selections are based on nominations submitted by two and four-year colleges and universities, public and private, in Texas. A University committee selects a final nominee and the President’s Office submits the official nomination to the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation.
The Power of Teaching and Research
As a professor, teaching and research are equally important to Dr. Wise de Valdez and she believes changes in recent years, such as reduced teaching loads and increased opportunities for internal research funding, have helped better her as a mentor and educator.
“It has allowed me to succeed as an educator not only in the classroom, but as a mentor of undergraduate research, which is truly my passion,” she said. “I love watching my students develop into scientists, challenging me with questions, watching them make and learn from mistakes, and watching their own enthusiasm grow when they see their data come to mean something. After they attend a scientific conference where they have presented their own research, they come away with increased confidence and motivation to continue in their educational journey.”
As part of the Piper Professorship application, Dr. Wise de Valdez sought out letters of recommendation from former undergraduate researchers who have gone on to become Ph.D. students, doctors, physician assistants, and public health researchers.
“Getting to read their perspectives on the role I played in their lives meant more than anything—it’s why I do what I do.”
A Reflection of Faculty as Dedicated Educators and Mentors
Dr. Wise de Valdez said she is genuinely proud of what she and her colleagues have accomplished in the classroom and as mentors, and the Piper recognition is reflective of their commitment to teaching and helping guide students.
“Having a Piper Professor is one of the ways the public can be made aware of the quality of education we at A&M-San Antonio already know that we provide,” said Dr. Wise de Valdez. “We have amazing faculty who are here because they believe in our mission and care deeply about educating and mentoring students who choose to come to the University and, thus, I know that this first Piper Professor award will not be the last among our faculty.”
For Dr. Wise de Valdez, the Piper Professor award aligns with her goals and accomplishments as an educator, mentor, and researcher, which is to change the lives of undergraduate students through mentorship in undergraduate research.
“Undergraduate research with an amazing mentor is what changed the trajectory of my life. I would not have sought out advanced degrees nor become a professor had it not been for my freshman zoology professor who took a chance on me and asked me to study field parasitology at a biological station in Western Nebraska,” shared Dr. Wise de Valdez.
“Becoming an undergraduate researcher in his lab allowed me to see that a strong mentor could help shape the lives of all students who passed through their lab,” she continued. “The experience allowed us to see the world through a different light and approach our careers with a broader perspective. Being mentored by such an amazing professor made me more curious, passionate, and motivated to engage with the biological world around me. I want this perspective for my students, regardless of their career path, and I believe that the Piper Professorship honors my passion to change the lives of my students.”