Missouri S&T professor surprised with first Dean’s Medal from the College of Arts, Sciences, and Business

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Missouri University of Science and Technology biology professor Dr. David Westenberg is the first recipient of the Dean’s Medal for Outstanding Commitment to Undergraduate Student Success in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Business (CASB). Members of the Dean’s Leadership Council Faculty Excellence Committee surprised Westenberg with the award while he was teaching class Wednesday.

“We are pleased to recognize and honor one of the most beloved faculty members at Missouri S&T with this inaugural CASB Dean’s Medal,” says Ted Kelly, a 1977 economics graduate of Missouri S&T and chair of the Dean’s Leadership Council. “We hope the award will highlight the vital role faculty play in fostering student success at S&T.”

The Dean’s Leadership Council created the Dean’s Medal to recognize faculty who have made outstanding contributions to the academic, professional or personal growth of their undergraduate students. Starting this year, the council will annually honor one CASB faculty member with the Dean’s Medal along with a financial award of at least $2,021.

“My approach to working with students is best described by one of my mentors – be a groundskeeper and not a gatekeeper,” wrote Westenberg in his nomination statement. “Each student has taken a different path, and all deserve the same opportunity to succeed. This requires listening to students and helping them make connections and find personal relevance.”

“We were overwhelmed with letters of strong support for Dr. Westenberg from his students and colleagues,” says CASB Dean Kate Drowne. “In his time here, Dr. Westenberg has guided hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty in their research and on to successful careers in many fields.” 

“In my opinion, no one individual has singularly impacted the lives of students across the S&T campus in as many ways as Dr. Westenberg,” wrote Dr. Dave Duvernell, chair of biological sciences, in his nomination letter. “Dr. Westenberg is an outstanding, award-winning teacher, and favorite among biological sciences majors, and any other students fortunate enough to take his classes.”

Nominators praised Westenberg for his caring for students and their lives, not just on a professional level but also as individuals.

“Dr. David Westenberg has been one of the biggest blessings in my time at Missouri University of Science and Technology,” wrote one student. “Not only does David value academics and success, he also values the lives and emotional wellbeing of all he comes across. … He never failed to ask how my classes were going, how I was feeling, and if there was anything he could do to make my life and experiences on campus better.”  

Former students talked about how Westenberg’s mentorship prepared them well for successful careers in biological sciences.

“I prepare liquid samples, like lung fluid, onto microscope slides,” wrote a former student. “When COVID hit, my job became dangerous. Yet, I used what I learned in his (Westenberg’s) classes to create a COVID-handling safety protocol. Management implemented my protocol, and I am the first person my colleagues let handle any COVID specimens. I am also proud to say that as of this writing, none of my colleagues have been infected by COVID.”

Westenberg’s colleagues say they respect his dedication to teaching students through hands-on learning in labs, which can be time-consuming pursuits, and how students truly enjoy his classes.

“More recently, Dr. Westenberg has started microbial art activities for our students, where they create images on agar plates based on the media and type of bacteria that grow on it,” wrote Dr. Dev Niyogi, professor of biological sciences. “I watched one of his evening art sessions last year, and students really were having a great time. Our students love the passion and dedication that Dr. Westenberg brings to his classes.”

Other colleagues say Westenberg’s mentorship of junior faculty members has helped them improve their teaching skills.

“I can attest that this effort has helped me be more effective in the classroom and in the lab,” wrote Dr. Julie Semon, associate professor of biological sciences. “I quickly started relying on Dr. Westenberg for teaching help shortly after arriving at S&T, and I have imitated him in some form in each of my classes. I still email him a ‘question of the day’ frequently, and he is still very patient with me.”

Westenberg joined the Missouri S&T faculty in 1997 and is a professor of biological sciences. He has earned numerous awards for teaching during his tenure, and his students have won many awards for their research as undergraduates and graduate students. He is actively involved in supporting athletics and student volunteer organizations and helps mentor students to find service projects on campus and in the community. He says that seeing what students can do motivates him to serve on campus committees devoted to student success and mental well-being.

Westenberg earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics from the University of California, Los Angeles. He spent two years in Germany as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow and four years as a USDA post-doctoral fellow at Dartmouth College. His laboratory primarily focuses on the role of rhizosphere microorganisms on plant nutrition and bioremediation with an emphasis on the Bradyrhizobium japonicum/soybean symbiosis. The goal of this research is to use the synergistic interaction between bacteria and their host plants to enhance crop yield, plant nutrition and removal of toxic materials.

Missouri S&T biology professor Dr. David Westenberg (center) is the first recipient of the Dean’s Medal for Outstanding Commitment to Undergraduate Student Success in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Business. From left to right: Dr. Kate Drowne, Dr. Larry Gragg, Dr. David Westenberg, Ted Kelly, and Diane Butrus. Photo by Michael Pierce/Missouri S&T