March 1, 2019
Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor with the Department of Geosciences, and Leo Piilonen, a professor with the Department of Physics, are recipients of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s 2019 Outstanding Faculty Awards.
The award is the commonwealth’s highest honor for faculty at Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities, recognizing commitment to excellence in teaching, research, knowledge integration, and public service. Since 1987, 33 Virginia Tech faculty members have received the award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).
Nominees are selected by the institutions, reviewed by a panel of peers, and chosen by a committee of leaders from both public and private sectors. In all, 86 nominations were submitted this year, with a total of 13 recipients selected, according to SCHEV. Piilonen and Nesbitt, each part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, will be honored at a luncheon March 7 at The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.
A fifth-year assistant professor, Nesbitt is a vertebrate paleontologist who uses his passion to inspire others to explore Earth’s history. His research lab of undergraduate and graduate students explores the origins of vertebrate diversity and shape, reptile evolution, and how to use recent technologies to study long-extinct animals. On campus, Nesbitt is known for co-hosting fossil unpacking events, where members of the community, especially children, are invited to unpack fossils found and collected by Nesbitt and fellow members of the Virginia Tech Paleobiology Research Group.
SCHEV is honoring Nesbitt as a Rising Star for early-career achievement. He has published more than 100 peer-reviewed publications, and in 2017, Nesbitt was awarded the Donath Medal, which is the Geological Society of America’s Young Scientist Award.
His research focuses on the evolution of Mesozoic terrestrial vertebrate fossils through major Earth events, such as climate change and extinction events, with a keen interest in reptile evolution. His fieldwork has taken him around the world with fellow researcher Michelle Stocker, also an assistant professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech, and has made numerous international headlines. He is a faculty member with the Global Change Center.
“Sterling truly is the complete package — a creative and effective educator, a stellar researcher, and a dedicated public servant,” said Steve Holbrook, department head of Geosciences. “He has reimagined our undergraduate curriculum, made extraordinary contributions to our knowledge of Earth history, and made a lasting impact on Virginia Tech’s engagement with the public. I would be hard pressed to imagine a more fitting recipient for the SCHEV Rising Star award.”
Nesbitt earned a bachelor of arts in integrative biology from the University of California at Berkeley in 2004 and a doctoral degree in geosciences from Columbia University in 2009.