Award helps empower top faculty to reach new heights in the classroom, lab, and the community
Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The University of Iowa Distinguished Chair award is having a positive impact on some of the university's most accomplished faculty members by providing them with the freedom to advance teaching, research, and public service in new and innovative ways.

Michelle Scherer
Michelle Scherer, University of Iowa Distinguished Chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering

Named a distinguished chair in 2021, Michelle Scherer is one of the scholars benefiting from the university’s efforts to support faculty excellence. Scherer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who is highly regarded for her research in environmental chemistry, says the award has opened many new possibilities for her on campus.

“It's been a game changer mentally for me to be able to have the flexibility to take my education and research and connect them without having to constantly ask, ‘How do I pay for this?’” – Michelle Scherer

The award, created in 2020, is one of the highest honors bestowed on UI faculty. Recipients hold the title of University of Iowa Distinguished Chair for the duration of their faculty appointment at Iowa. The award also provides one-time funding of $250,000 to support professional activities over a five-year term, disbursed in annual $50,000 increments.

As distinguished chair, Scherer has continued her groundbreaking research on securing clean water for all. But she now has the financial support and freedom to say "yes" to more undergraduate students who are excited about participating in research projects. This enables her to include more students from different backgrounds and academic experiences in her research.

Scherer says the support also has empowered her to explore new ways to engage students in the classroom, such as having them create a comic book to showcase their research or inviting author Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha for a book reading and Q&A about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.  

"It lets you be much more creative with trying to excite the students and inspire them, and for them to feel like you value them." – Michelle Scherer

The funding has also created opportunities for cross-campus collaborations, such as the communication class for engineering graduate students that Scherer co-teaches with Kristen Hartsgrove Mooers, a lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts. This course teaches data visualization, storytelling, and improvisational techniques to provide students with unique skills to tell their research stories.

Faculty awards and recognition like the distinguished chair are an important component of the UI's strategic plan. By enabling faculty to focus on teaching and promoting innovative research, the university is working toward its goal of becoming a top destination for students, faculty, and staff. 

As Scherer has demonstrated, initiatives like the distinguished chair provide faculty with the recognition they deserve while also offering them tools to expand the impact they have on the university community and beyond.