Four faculty members honored

Members of the Mount Holyoke community gathered recently to celebrate four professors at the annual Faculty Awards ceremony.

In what is now a 22-year-old tradition, members of the Mount Holyoke community gathered virtually on Thursday, March 3, to celebrate four professors at the College’s annual Faculty Awards ceremony. This celebration is a yearly testament to how important scholarship and teaching are to Mount Holyoke’s mission. 

President Sonya Stephens and Dorothy Mosby, interim vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, presented the four awards. 

Ombretta Frau, Dorothy Rooke McCulloch Professor of Italian, and Jared Schwartzer, associate professor of psychology and education and chair of neuroscience and behavior, both received the 2022 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship, while the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching was presented to Nina Emery, associate professor of philosophy, and Lucas Wilson, professor of Africana studies and economics and chair of economics.

As part of the ceremony, Stephens and Mosby read citations for each of the award recipients, detailing their accomplishments. Each of the awardees spoke as well.

President Stephens spoke of current challenges confronting the world, including the ongoing pandemic and the current horrors in Ukraine, and addressed the importance of educational institutions such as Mount Holyoke in trying to map out new paths forward for humankind. 

“These challenges to democracy, to human rights, to equity and justice, to freedom are all the more reason for us to celebrate what it means to be an intellectual community here, to celebrate the exceptional work of this faculty, and that in particular of the four superb recipients of this year’s faculty awards,” she said.

While accepting her award for teaching, Nina Emery, at Mount Holyoke since 2017, especially thanked her students “for the endless inspiration and motivation that they have provided,” noting that the trials of the current pandemic allowed her to see the importance of teaching more fully.

“I have always known that I learned a lot from my students,” Emery said. “When you're a philosopher trying to explain something as clearly as possible, having someone listen carefully and then say, effectively, ‘Huh?’ or ‘What?’ or ‘Why?’ and having to go back to the beginning and try again — that process can actually teach you quite a lot. But having a full year, during which my research stalled, allowed me to slow down and pay attention to what I was really learning from my teaching.” 

Emery’s work tackles the intersection of metaphysics and the philosophy of physics, especially questions involving quantum mechanics, relativity theory and understandings of time, probability and the laws of nature. 

Student accounts of Emery’s extraordinary teaching were highlighted in her citation: “Nina’s teaching consistently challenges students to push the boundaries of what they believe is possible.” Students report feeling motivated to do their “absolute best on every assignment” and that Nina made them examine not only what they think but how they think.

At Mount Holyoke since 2003, Professor Ombretta Frau described how chance played a fortuitous role in her scholarship and her career, ever since she “stumbled across” a previously unknown manuscript by playwright Luigi Pirandello while conducting research as a graduate student in Harvard’s trove of archival materials, the Houghton Library. “This discovery turned me into a Pirandello philologist,” she said. “And this is significant to me, as I am now back to writing about Pirandello. Because things always circle back.”

Frau shared this lesson of the power of being open to possibility with her students.

“This is something that I tell my students when they struggle with a paper topic,” she said, “or when they are thinking about graduate studies. Let it happen, do not overplan.” 

Frau’s wide-ranging scholarship spans from nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Italian public intellectuals, modern philology and Luigi Pirandello, to motherhood, internet violence, Italian fascism and important women writers of post-unification Italy. She has also become an influential public intellectual, often exploring a range of contemporary issues through blog posts on the Italian Huffington Post and other venues.

Her “outstanding traits as a scholar, her imagination, perseverance and willingness to take risks,” were noted in her award citation: “For good reason she has been described as one of the most accomplished and brilliant North American scholars in her field.” 

So, too, were other strengths: “In addition to her being a prolific scholar, Ombretta is an outstanding teacher and leader. She has developed the Italian program into one of the best (if not the best) liberal arts programs in the country. Her courses are innovative and stimulating; she is a dedicated advisor and mentor to both students and colleagues.” 

For Jared Schwartzer, at the College since 2013, being recognized for his wide-ranging research gave him an opportunity to reflect on how small changes can affect not only fetal development — a main focus of his work — but also our lives. Pointing to the day when, as a public school teacher, a remark said by a colleague made him realize that he could become a researcher, Schwartzer said, “This notion, that a seemingly inconsequential moment can have a lasting impact later in life, has been described many times across the liberal arts. . . . My research program is all about these impactful ‘what if’ moments during gestation. I’m fascinated by the power of a moment — how the many moments of pregnancy can shape the life of an unborn fetus.”

And that research program is having a significant impact. 

“Not only is Jared’s work important,” his award citation observed, “his research productivity is remarkable: He has published many articles in top-notch peer-reviewed journals. His publications have been cited 750 times, reflecting the relevance of his work to other scientists. Jared’s interdisciplinary and accessible writing highlights the ways in which immunology and neuroscience inform one another. In addition, his lab has created opportunities for over 100 motivated and curious students interested in behavioral neuroscience.”

To Professor Wilson, who has taught at Mount Holyoke since 1988, the annual awards are a reflection of the commitment of Mount Holyoke’s faculty to scholarship and teaching.

“I’m very proud of all of us, genuinely,” Wilson said, reflecting on the significance of the annual celebration in advance of the event. “I believe we all care a great deal about the mission of educating our students for purposeful engagement in the world. I also believe we care so much that we go beyond what our craft demands to ensure strong connections with students are made around knowledge and experience.”

Noting Wilson’s pioneering work in bringing critical race theory and restorative justice into the curriculum, as well as his innovative community-based learning courses pairing students with incarcerated individuals, his award citation observed, “Lucas is clearly one of the most beloved faculty members on campus. His presence, wisdom and compassion are unmistakable, and his mentoring of students provides a model that we can all learn from. Lucas exhibits the uncanny ability to celebrate his students individually, especially at the most crucial and memorable moments in their lives. Their gratitude to him is always profound.”

In his remarks, Wilson drew on many examples from his career in which interactions with students, faculty colleagues, incarcerated individuals, alums, staff members and others have expanded his understanding of the possibilities of education and his commitment to bringing about a more just society. 

“For as long as I’ve been at Mount Holyoke, I’ve believed there are extraordinarily wise, caring and compassionate people as faculty, staff and students. I believe we are all teachers, mentors, scholars and activists who love this place and its mission,” Wilson said. “My passion for teaching and learning comes from engagement with students. We start as strangers at first and then, at the speed of trust, become collaborators and colleagues in learning.”

“I am in awe of you, and I am truly inspired. I am in awe of the innovation you bring to the classroom and the ways you have broken new ground in your research,” Mosby said, ending the event. “We often say faculty are the heart of an academic institution like ours, and this annual event, one of my favorites of all the events in the year, shows us again how true that is.”

The scholarship awards were endowed by former trustee Janet Hickey Tague ’66 in honor of Meribeth E. Cameron, a professor of history who also held several administrative positions. The teaching awards were funded by an anonymous donor. A committee of faculty members selects the recipients each year from submitted nominations from current faculty, emeriti and alums.