Professor honored by National Science Foundation

UAA biological sciences professor Lillian Alessa was recently honored as the National Science Foundation’s distinguished lecturer. Alessa gave a speech Jan. 26 at NSF headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Each year, the NSF awards the distinguished lecturer title to a professor who has demonstrated powerful public speaking abilities. Previous recipients have taught at Harvard, Stanford and Princeton.

When Alessa heard she had been honored with the title, she sent an e-mail telling the NSF it had made a mistake.

“I stayed up a week going, ‘I know they made a mistake, they just won’t admit it,’” Alessa said.

An anonymous nomination was made on Alessa’s behalf after she spoke at a Knauss Fellows symposium in June 2004.

Alessa presented a speech before an audience of scientific peers on taking a holistic approach to science by combining the socio-cultural and bio-physical factors in all ecological situations. Though Alessa said she was honored to be included in a group of preeminent individuals who write the textbooks she teaches from, she said she was also nervous.

“You can destroy your career by getting an award like this and blowing it,” Alessa said. “I gave probably the toughest talk of my life.”

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Alessa said she normally enjoys public speaking but the responsibility was big and the topic was complex.

“I was worried about delivering it to a group of incredibly bright people and giving too much or too little detail,” Alessa said. Alessa also said the award recognizes excellence at a university, but also expects more excellence from the school and the individual.

Validation came in the form of an e-mail sent after the speech by an audience member.

“I was told it went really well. I got a e-mail, and the person who sent it was really high-up. The first line said, ‘Wow, that was amazing,’” Alessa said. “I am so hard on myself and there was never a moment to enjoy it.”

Alessa’s honor and speech topic came at a prime moment for UAA.

“Because of global change, everybody wants to be here,” Alessa said of UAA.

Alessa also said the holistic approach to ecology is a national trend of which UAA is on the leading edge.

Contemporary ecological and scientific issues are so complex that completely new methods for solving them have to be developed, Alessa said.

Natural sciences major Coty Mammoser said Alaska is environmentally conscious and works to preserve the natural landscape. She said she felt challenged by Alessa’s approach to teaching.

“We were covering renewable resources, and the argument we believe in, we had to write about the opposite,” said Mammoser, one of Alessa’s former students. “It’s a challenge to write about everything you don’t believe.”

Alessa said requiring her students to support their opposing view is necessary.

“It’s important to see both sides,” Alessa said. “There’s nothing worse than single polarity on an issue.”

Kalb Stevenson, a doctorate student in biology, said there is no comparison to his graduate work at UAA.

“I actually feel like I’m getting trained for my discipline,” Stevenson said.

A collaborative doctorate program with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, multiple graduate and undergraduate internships, summer study sessions and other research opportunities are so numerous and varied that Alessa said they are never completely filled.

Despite competition between UAF and UAA faculty, Alessa said the two campuses are working to build more bridges like the successful doctorate program.

“I think it’s healthy. Without competition you tend to get apathetic,” Alessa said. “I don’t think people know how special UAA really is and what it can be.”