Ask any chemistry major at UNC Asheville about their department, and you’ll hear the word “family.” And at the center of that family is Sally Wasileski, associate professor of chemistry and coordinator of the Chemistry Scholars program, and UNC Asheville’s recipient of the Board of Governors’ 2016 Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her impact on students as a teacher, a mentor and a scientist can be seen from their first day on campus and long into their graduate studies and careers.
“I know it gets said a lot, but Sally really cares about her students and about the Chemistry Department as a whole,” said Max Stone, a recent chemistry graduate, and a Chemistry Scholar. “She makes an active effort to get to know what the students are up to, not just in terms of classes but how their experience at UNC Asheville is going, and what they plan to do after, and offers genuine advice to anyone who asks for it.”
For many UNC Asheville students Wasileski’s passion for chemistry is contagious—and it catches on quickly.
“Dr. Wasileski is the reason I’m pursuing chemistry,” said Ganjina Nagzibekova, a sophomore chemistry major, who never felt she did well in chemistry in high school and was planning on pursuing biology, instead. That changed when she met Wasileski at her embark orientation on campus. “Just talking with her about chemistry and how much she loves it, and different opportunities that I would have…she was my inspiration to do that.”
Similarly, Wasileski was the first person Caitlin Bridges ’15, now a graduate student at Emory University, met when she was visiting UNC Asheville as a high school senior. Though Bridges wasn’t visiting as part of an official group or campus tour, Wasileski took the time to give her a personal tour of the Chemistry Department and tell her about the program.
“Her passion and her enthusiasm and her kindness in doing all of that when I visited helped me choose UNC Asheville to go to undergrad, and started the formation of our mentor-mentee relationship, and now our graduate student-faculty relationship,” Bridges said.
Alumna Anna Goldstein ’07, now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, was taught by Wasileski both in the classroom and in the research lab.
“Her clarity of explanation and attention to detail stands out to me, thinking back on it,” Goldstein said. “She obviously cared that we not only solved the equations, but really understood the context, and had a next-level understanding of what we were doing. As a classroom teacher, she was fantastic.”
In the lab with Wasileski, Goldstein researched the process of steam reforming ethanol into hydrogen—an important study for sustainable energy.
“She was always talking about bigger picture,” Goldstein said. “Why would we do this research, what’s the point, where does it fit into the bigger picture of sustainable energy? That was always at the forefront.
“From what I observe about researchers in general since leaving UNC Asheville, that’s a unique quality.”
In addition to her teaching and research, Wasileski is also the coordinator and project investigator of UNC Asheville’s Chemistry Scholars program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which graduated it’s first cohort last year. The program, which began in 2011, provides scholarships and aims to increase academic success for UNC Asheville’s chemistry majors. The program has received two grants totaling $1,204, 967, plus an additional $225,500 pledged from the university to continue scholarship funding after the grant funds end.
“Chemistry Scholars provided even more community than the Chemistry Department already had. The chemistry department at UNC Asheville was small when I got there, so everybody knew everybody, and it was like a family,” said Bridges. “I was talking to the people in my major and making lifelong friendships, and then even making connections with chemistry professors…. It provided a platform to get to know them at a level beyond classroom.”
“I definitely am excited that she got this award,” Bridges continued, “because I hope it makes people understand the impact she’s having now, and that it allows her to keep impacting more and more students for years and years to come.”
“Sally is seriously the best professor I had while I was at UNC Asheville,” Stone said. “From the classroom to undergraduate research, I wouldn't have been able to succeed in the way I did if not for her as an advisor and mentor. The way Sally teaches and connects with her students should be the way that all professors strive to be, and I can't think of anyone more deserving of this award.”
For more information, read the press release.