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W&M geology teaching, mentoring specialist Macdonald honored with Jefferson Award

  • Heather Macdonald
    Thomas Jefferson Award:  Heather Macdonald, Chancellor Professor of Geology at William & Mary, will be awarded the 2020 Thomas Jefferson Award at a Jan. 29 ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Heather Macdonald always loved science, and that combined with a love of teaching to shape her future.

In high school, Macdonald taught French and math to elementary school students as part of a partnership. Now after 36 years at William & Mary, the Chancellor Professor of Geology will receive the university’s 2020 Thomas Jefferson Award.

The honor is given annually to a member of the W&M faculty for “significant service through his or her personal activities, influence and leadership.” The award will be presented at a ceremony for the Jefferson awards and Monroe Prize on Jan. 29 at 4 p.m. in Miller Hall Brinkley Commons as part of the university’s Charter Day festivities. This year’s Plumeri Award recipients will also be announced at the reception.

“I’ve really always enjoyed working with people and getting them excited about whatever the subject is, and moving on from there,” Macdonald said.

Indeed, that’s what Macdonald has been doing since coming to W&M in 1983, when she was the first and only woman in the geology department. She has carved a role of go-between, taking work at the university and national levels back and forth to benefit both arenas.

Macdonald received W&M’s Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award in 1990, and now becomes the first woman in the science, technology, engineering and math fields to receive the Jefferson Award since Cirila Djordjevic in 1991.

“I was completely thrilled, astounded, happy, honored,” Macdonald said. “It was a nice recognition of my career and the work I’ve tried to do at William & Mary and elsewhere.”

Macdonald researches in the area of geoscience education and faculty professional development, including early career geoscience faculty, community colleges and K-12. Mentoring and emphasizing inclusion in the workplace, she became a model for students and faculty at various stages of their education and careers.

Geology professors Rowan Lockwood and Christopher Bailey had interactions years ago with Macdonald, who both say was a major influence. Bailey was an undergraduate student in one of Macdonald’s classes, while Lockwood attended a graduate student workshop Macdonald conducted for the Geological Society of America.

“Her class helped to set the trajectory of my academic/professional life,” Bailey wrote in a nomination letter. “Heather’s teaching has made a difference for thousands of William & Mary students — she makes geology and science approachable.”

Lockwood wrote that Macdonald was the main reason she applied to work at W&M.

“Heather’s dedication to mentorship, education and service permeates both the geology department and the university,” Lockwood’s and Bailey’s letter continued. “Heather’s research and professional service is of great value to William & Mary, as the institution has not only benefitted from her grants, but our prestige as a university that embraces excellent teaching is well known because of Heather’s impact.”

Macdonald said Bailey describes the geology department as a place of opportunities, and she feels that way about being able to pick activities she wanted to pursue at W&M. She started early on to network across campus, and built out nationwide from there.

“One of the things that I like so much about being here is feeling like this is a place of opportunity,” Macdonald said. “There are so many opportunities for me to learn from other people. And often it was learning about what we shared in common, which was our interest in working with students.”

She worked extensively with other departments to develop new programs, including the Noyce Program for teacher preparation at the School of Education and the marine science minor and Marine Science Teaching Fellows program for doctoral students, which she co-developed with Chancellor Professor Elizabeth Canuel, at W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

With the GSA, Macdonald started the Early Career Geoscience Faculty Workshop program that she ran for about a decade and then supported the successful transition to new leadership for the multi-day workshop that continues today.

“I have enjoyed throughout my career the inter-play between things that I have been able to do at William & Mary and things that I have been able to do working in geoscience at the national level,” Macdonald said.

All of this she did while serving at W&M, connecting various entities and constantly helping others.

“Since her arrival at W&M, Heather has promoted faculty development and served as a mentor to countless individuals within the university and across the nation,” wrote Virginia McLaughlin, Chancellor Professor of Education who also joined the W&M faculty in 1983.

“Whether co-chairing the Women’s Caucus, serving on panels to demystify the tenure and promotion process or personally counseling colleagues as they shape their career paths, Heather has generously supported the growth and success of others.”

Part of that was working to recruit, retain and encourage members of underrepresented groups in the STEM fields, including community college faculty.

“From my own perspective, it was being a woman in a field that was underrepresented in terms of women,” Macdonald said. “It is important to have all voices at the tables that we were part of.”

Canuel wrote that Macdonald “has been a personal inspiration and mentor to me in many ways.” Boles-Ash Distinguished Professor of Biology Paul Heideman wrote: “Long before ‘inclusion’ was a common word in higher education, Heather was always inclusive.”

Honoring Macdonald, the GSA devoted part of its annual meeting in September 2019 to “Celebrating the Role of Heather Macdonald in Geoscience Education in Two-Year Colleges.” Looking back, she talked about all the things she has enjoyed about teaching and learning.

“I’m incredibly grateful to be here at William & Mary and incredibly grateful for the geology department — to my colleagues, the four founders, current and past faculty and staff, and of course the students,” Macdonald said. “The department is a place of opportunities — teaching, research, leadership and service.

“And I am privileged to have worked with so many across the university. I’m particularly excited about the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation. I have learned so much from the many colleagues I’ve worked with over the years, both here and elsewhere.”