Sweet Briar professor wins highest state honor

Posted on January 23, 2014 by Jennifer McManamay

Sweet Briar professor of mathematical sciences Raina Robeva is one of 12 recipients of a 2014 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. An OFA award is the commonwealth’s highest honor given to faculty at its private and public universities and colleges.

The General Assembly and SCHEV established the awards in 1986 with two guiding principles. First, that successful nominees must show superior accomplishments in all dimensions of scholarship — defined as teaching, discovery, integration of knowledge and service — and second, that their accomplishments “strongly” reflect the mission of the institution they serve.

Raina Robeva Raina Robeva

“What feels good about this [award] is that it’s for all of the above,” Robeva says. “Teaching, research, publications — to be recognized for all of these combined, at the state level, it really feels nice.”

It’s even nicer given Robeva’s initial skepticism when her colleague, math professor and department chair Jim Kirkwood, suggested that the College nominate her. It’s a rigorous process requiring pages of documentation. Robeva read the criteria she would have to live up to and found them discouraging. She declined Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall’s first request to apply for it.

“Raina doesn’t work for accolades and never has, so when I nominated her she really was hesitant, as I think she believes everyone should be and probably is doing the kind of work she does every day,” says Jessen-Marshall, who serves as a reviewer for the SCHEV awards.

Since she actually won the OFA, Robeva joked with Kirkwood that he no longer need fear for his life. But she was serious in her gratitude to him, the dean’s office, which worked with her on the nomination packet, and those who contributed material for it.

For his part, Kirkwood was resolute about her chances, citing Robeva’s knack for being both demanding and nurturing with students and her contributions to the emerging field of mathematical biology education, in which she is a nationally recognized leader.

“She truly cares about her students,” Kirkwood wrote in support of her nomination. “What’s more, the level of her research for someone at a liberal arts college is almost beyond belief.”

There are common threads in the testimonials Robeva’s students and colleagues made on her behalf — an always cheerful bridge builder, enabler and a powerful influencer, because she so ardently believes in the potential of new mathematical approaches in the life sciences. And, she engenders the same enthusiasm and confidence in others.

“There are few characteristics that define good teaching more than transforming a student’s fear of a subject into excitement, or self-doubt into curiosity,” wrote Ashley Baker ’15, a chemistry major. “When I began my freshman year, I was terrified by one word that appeared on my schedule: calculus. Fortunately, Sweet Briar College hosts a gem of a mathematics professor.”

One of Robeva’s tricks is not waiting for a struggling student to ask for help.

“I have witnessed her practically begging underperforming students to come for extra help,” Kirkwood says, an observation corroborated by student course evaluations.

Her research partners and those who’ve collaborated with her on the development and dissemination of teaching materials for educators find her equally persuasive.

John R. Jungck, who directs the Interdisciplinary Science Learning Laboratories at the University of Delaware, calls her a “leader who delivers time and again” and an “extraordinary pioneer in higher education.”

“It is rare that biologists feel that a mathematician really wants to serve them and their students in a genuine and non-condescending collaboration,” Jungck wrote. “Raina’s friendliness, enthusiasm and incredible breadth manage to win over even the most skeptical and resistant professors in our workshops. Few educators have the dual success of being a prophet in their own land as well as nationally and internationally through their work in professional societies.”

The Outstanding Faculty Award recipients will be honored at a luncheon at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond on Feb. 20, after an introduction on the floor of the General Assembly.

Recipients receive $5,000, underwritten by the Dominion Foundation, and an engraved award. SCHEV administers the award program with Dominion’s corporate sponsorship. Colleges and universities are allotted a number of nominations based on faculty size and are encouraged to participate.

Since 1987, more than 300 winners have been named, exceeding $1.2 million in cash awards. The selection committee assures that the winners represent all sectors of Virginia’s higher education system — research/doctoral, master’s/comprehensive, baccalaureate and two-year institutions.

For more about the OFA awards and each winner, visit the SCHEV website.