Excellence in Teaching
Dr. Debra Dolliver
Excellence in Teaching
Dr. Debra Dolliver
Professor of Chemistry
Like many of the students she teaches in her chemistry classes and labs, Debra Dolliver wasn’t sure what she wanted to do in life. She enjoyed reading, so English was a natural inclination, and she earned a bachelor’s degree in the discipline.
But after working at various jobs for several years, she came to a conclusion: “This can’t be what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
"I had little exposure to science in high school, but I had a brother who was majoring in physics and I decided to go back to college and take a few science courses just to see if I liked them,” said Dolliver, associate professor of chemistry and this year’s winner of the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.
After taking organic chemistry, she knew that was what she wanted to do. “It’s a difficult course, but it just clicked with me. It was creative and fun, and I thought it was the greatest thing ever.”
A member of the Southeastern faculty since she earned her doctorate at the University of North Texas in 2001, Dolliver models her teaching style after the individuals who mentored her in science. She said her professors guided her to a career in an academic setting, assigning her lots of undergraduates to train and labs to teach.
“What I like about the academic setting is that I can choose the kind of research I want to do and that’s not necessarily true in industry where you have to work on what the company wants you to work on,” said Dolliver, who this spring was named the 2011 recipient of the Centennial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching presented by Iota Sigma Pi, the National Honor Society for Women in Chemistry. “I get to do research on things I dream up. That’s an advantage.”
In her research, she ventures into the realm of designing synthetic compounds that have direct applications to agrichemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, petrochemicals, and numerous other industrial products. Her research ties directly into her teaching process, as she recruits students to work in her lab.
“I relate very directly to my students,” she said. “Some are like me when I entered college with little exposure to chemistry research. When you see them actually participate in it and see them develop a compound themselves, you see the excitement building in them. That gets me excited as well. It keeps me on my toes, and I’m always learning new things.”
And the students relate just as well to her.
“Dr. Dolliver has taken the time to teach me everything from basic lab techniques to the more technical aspects of organic research,” said Megan Lanier of Husser, a 2010 Southeastern graduate who is heading for graduate studies at Duke University. “I never felt stressed or pressured. She provided me with a work environment in which I felt more like a coworker than an employee. As my research abilities expanded, she gave me the freedom to work more independently, which has prepared me for life as a Ph.D. graduate student.”
“Dr. Dolliver profoundly influenced my life, and I can unreservedly say I am a better chemist due to her teaching,” said Richard P. Rucker, now a graduate student at the University of Washington. “In my experience, good scientists are not always able to teach their subject in an appealing manner. There are exceptions, however. Dr. Dolliver is one of them.”
Dolliver and physics colleague David Norwood oversee Southeastern’s SEAL program (“Student Entrepreneurs as Active Leaders”) a Board of Regents-funded project that links science and technology students with area industries that pay the group to assist in research projects.
“We’ve got several projects going on with local plants, and the firms seem very satisfied with the students’ work,” she said. “The students take it very seriously. It provides a different exposure for the students. They’re learning how to work with an outside client, the necessity of meeting deadlines and making presentations. In my opinion, it has been a rousing success.”
Dolliver actively seeks funding to support student-centered research, which frequently funds student trips to regional and national conferences, where they present the results of their work.
“I have my greatest pride in direct mentoring of students in chemical research,” she said. “This intense involvement in research is probably the best way for students to apply the knowledge they learn in courses and to truly understand the nature of science.”