Emily Polk is pictured accepting Stanford Earth's Excellence in Teaching Award from Dean Stephan Graham during the diploma ceremony on June 16. (Photo credit: Stacy Geiken)
Paula Welander, Emily Polk receive Excellence in Teaching Awards
Recipients of the school’s annual Excellence in Teaching Awards are selected based on nominations from students, faculty, and alumni.
An education at Stanford Earth can take many forms – a combination of geophysics, chemistry, biology, satellite data analysis, and social sciences, depending on your focus. In 2019, the school recognized the important work of educators representing different aspects of the multidisciplinary spectrum: microbiology and writing.
Paula Welander, an assistant professor of Earth system science, was awarded Stanford Earth’s annual Excellence in Teaching Award for both teaching and mentoring a new, increasingly diverse generation of young scientists. An Excellence in Teaching Award recognizing the work of a non-tenure-line faculty member was also awarded to Emily Polk, a lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric who serves as Stanford Earth’s writing specialist. The honorees were selected based on nominations from students, faculty, and alumni.
Advancing skills in scientific research
Welander, who joined Stanford in 2013, researches the biosynthesis and physiological function of “molecular fossils” or biomarkers in extant bacteria. This approach to microbial life gives insight into Earth’s history, including ancient climatic events, mass extinctions, and evolutionary transitions.
“Paula has inspired me to care as deeply as she does in my future endeavors to teach, to put in the time and effort to select quality course materials, to expand my ideas of what types of materials should be discussed in a seminar, and to make a concerted effort to welcome and encourage students from all backgrounds,” wrote one person who nominated Welander for the award.
She teaches a variety of undergraduate- and graduate-level courses about the physiology of microbes, identification of biomarker lipids, and mastery of the scientific research process.
“In 10 short weeks, she was able to immerse students in interdisciplinary lab work as well as the scientific method from hypothesis to experiment to analysis,” one nominator commented. “Paula was determined and committed to the success of her students in this course and all walked away with a number of advanced skills.”
In 2018, Welander received both the Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences and an Outstanding Research Award from the Geobiology and Geomicrobiology Division of the Geological Society of America (GSA).
Fostering brilliant writing and communication
Polk joined Stanford Earth in 2015 and has devoted herself to helping the school’s students become better writers and communicators – an increasingly important skill for scientists. She has taught or co-taught courses that bring students much-needed and often hidden perspectives on topics such as environmental justice.
Polk brings to her teaching an expertise as a social scientist that helps students navigate complex social-environmental topics in their research and writing. Her efforts have helped students hone their proposals, thesis chapters, and papers to articulate the importance of their work – and their personal stake in it – to help them receive grants for graduate research.
Her classes – some of which are co-taught with faculty at Stanford Earth, including Communicating Climate Change, Introduction to Environmental Justice, and Wild Writing – prioritize centering marginalized and vulnerable voices that are not often included in mainstream scientific discourses.
“She develops students’ trust and fosters this sense of community in our classroom,” wrote one person who nominated Polk for the award. “As a result, students are willing to dig into the work, be vulnerable, and stretch themselves in ways that would simply not be possible otherwise.”
Polk has brought curriculum to the school that aptly complements the sustainability concepts taught in the Earth Systems Program. Beyond being a writing specialist, she has served as an important role model and inspiration for Stanford Earth students.
“I will never forget the way that Emily empowered me, and the students around me, to truly commit to self-betterment. She recognized potential in me that was seen by few others.”