Lamar University has honored three faculty members with 2014 University Merit Awards in recognition of outstanding performance in the classroom. Award recipients are assistant professors Tracey Benson, chemical engineering; Scott Deppe, music; Xiangyang (Sunny) Lei, chemistry and biochemistry.

A university-wide committee selected them from junior faculty members nominated by committees from LU colleges. Lamar officials presented the awards at a reception and program April 9 in the University Reception Center of the Mary and John Gray Library.

The University Merit Awards are made possible by the creation and funding of the Lamar University Faculty Excellence Endowment by Ann Die Hasselmo, a 1966 graduate of LU.  Honored as Lamar’s 1986 Regents’ Professor, Hasselmo was a longtime faculty member whose career path later took her to top university administrative positions and other roles devoted to strengthening academic leadership.

While scholarship and service to the university and community are an important consideration in granting the University Merit Awards, the most important criteria for selection are classroom performance and interaction with students, said Stephen Doblin, provost and vice president for academic affairs. Here are profiles of the 2014 Merit Award recipients:

Tracey John Benson is assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Dan F. Smith Department of Chemical Engineering. He is completing his fifth year at Lamar and his sixth year of university faculty service.  He received a Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and Ph.D. from Mississippi State University.  All of his degrees are in chemical engineering. He furthered his expertise by holding a post-doctoral fellowship at Mississippi State.  His academic specialization is the development of chemical transformation pathways for biological feed stocks, namely lipids, on cracking and hydrotreating catalysts.  Since joining Lamar University, his research has focused on catalyst synthesis for conversion of phospholipid materials and CO2 conversion technologies through nanoparticle catalysts.  During his Lamar years, Benson has taught four undergraduate and two graduate courses and, as you might imagine, has received wide praise and excellent reviews from his students and colleagues.

His department chair, Regents’ Professor T. C. Ho said, “Dr. Benson is one of the most well-liked and highly-ranked classroom instructors in the department.  His students often mention his knowledge of the course material, fairness, and the extra effort he puts in his classes.”

Benson is deeply committed to helping his students improve their analytical skills, research writing, and oral presentation skills.  There is ample evidence of his success.  As an example, his student evaluation of instruction mean scores have ranged between 4.5 and 5.0 on a five-point scale.  He has attended national workshops on teaching effectiveness; collaborated with LIT students and staff on distillation system experiments; and published work on effective teaching strategies. Moreover, he has mentored five undergraduate chemical engineering students; chaired a Ph.D. committee; chaired two MES committees; and served on seven other master’s and Ph.D. committees.  In his free time, he serves as advisor for Lamar’s Toastmaster’s and AiChE student chapters.

Benson holds membership and leadership roles in a variety of professional organizations, including the AiChE, American Chemical Society, and American Oil Chemists Society. He has participated in numerous professional conferences, workshops, and meetings, frequently serving in leadership roles. He has served as a reviewer for six disciplinary journals as well as for the National Science Foundation.  He is a  member of many college and departmental committees, plus he volunteers as an advisory board member at Mississippi State.  He has even lectured to K-12 audiences about energy issues.

He has authored or co-authored 14 refereed journal articles, one book chapter, and has three other manuscripts in preparation or under review. In addition, he has presented 27 papers or posters at national conferences.  To support his research and students, he has submitted 17 research proposals to state or national funding agencies and received funding for five.

Victor Zaloom, interim dean of the College of Engineering, summarizes Benson’s accomplishments by writing:  “He meets all of the criteria for the University Merit Award.  He has been both active and successful in teaching, research and service. He is a promising young scholar and an asset to the department, college and university.”

Scott M. Deppe is assistant professor of music in the Mary Morgan Moore Department of Music, and is in his sixth year of service to Lamar University. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Stephen F. Austin State University, a master of music education from Lamar, and a doctor of education degree, also from Lamar.  Prior to his Lamar appointment, Deppe served as director of bands at six area high schools and, not surprisingly, student recruiting is one of his strengths.

His department chair, Dr. Kurt Gilman, said, “Scott has been a tireless and innovative instructor of instrumental methods and instrumental conducting, and his influence on students and his desire to inspire excellence in them has continued to grow during his years at Lamar.”

He has taught 13 courses, six at the graduate level.  On top of this, he conducts private study with students about to begin their student teaching experience; engages senior music majors as conductors, allowing them to gain experience; writes and presents papers on music education; and visits classrooms of former band students to evaluate Lamar’s preparation.  Deppe has served on a Lamar dissertation committee and mentored a McNair student.  In a short time, he has quickly established himself as one of Lamar’s finest young faculty members and performers.  Flattering student evaluation scores and comments lend support to his reputation for instructional excellence.

Deppe can also be found working with student organizations. He is faculty sponsor of Tau Beta Sigma Honorary Band Sorority, Kappa Kappa Psi Honorary Band Fraternity, the Beaumont Youth Wind Symphony, and the Music Educators Resource Network.  He has begun to assemble an impressive record of professional service and music scholarship and recently completed his award-winning dissertation and launched several studies.  He holds membership and leadership roles in 14 professional societies.

In many capacities, Deppe has served the campus and community. On-campus, he has been a member of the Faculty Senate, Athletic Council, and Registration Committee, to mention but a few.  Off-campus, he is a Leadership Beaumont graduate, founder of Rockin’ the Oldies Foundation, and a workhorse for youth music programs.  He provides campus music for many campus events from commencement exercises to the presidential investiture to Cardinal sports.

Russ Schultz, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, captures the completeness of Deppe’s accomplishments by writing, “Scott has distinguished himself as an extremely effective teacher, performer, scholar, and participant in departmental and university activities.   During his time as director of bands, he has elevated the band program to state and regional recognition.  He adds so much to Lamar.”

Xiangyang (Sunny) Lei serves as assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.  She earned a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degree, both in chemistry, from the Beijing Institute of Technology.  Later, she received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Texas Christian University.  Following her doctorate, she received a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Students comment that Dr. Lei is one of the best teachers ever!” writes Brenda Nichols, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.  “Dr. Lei’s teaching style has developed from the blending of her research into her teaching,”

Lei regularly teaches 13 courses a year, four of which are graduate courses: the other nine at the upper-division level.  She has taught 1,314 students during her time at Lamar and has averaged a 4.52, out of 5, score on her student evaluations.  In addition, she has chaired five thesis committees and served on nine others.  Lei is an organic chemist who especially enjoys her pre-professional and honors students.

One undergraduate wrote, “Dr. Lei is simply wonderful!  Even though organic chemistry was the hardest course I have ever taken in my life, I am grateful to have such an amazing professor.”

She is a campus leader in undergraduate scholarship, having supervised ten undergraduate researchers.  One of whom received a top award at a regional meeting of the American Chemical Society; two others won university awards; and still another received a Lamar Undergraduate Research Award.

Lei is a pre-professional advisor and is actively involved in the local chapters of the American Student Dental Association and the American Medical Student Association.  She has received $250,000 in external grant support, including major funding from the Welch Foundation and the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund. During her career, she has published 12 peer-reviewed journal articles and has four others under review.  In addition, she has written and presented 31 professional papers, including a half-dozen at national and international conferences.

In her free time, is active in departmental committee work and community projects.  She serves on Lamar’s STAIRSTEP Advisory Board and has judged science projects for the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad and the International Sustainable World competition.

Dean Nichols summarized the accomplishments of this hard working young faculty member by noting, “Dr. Lei epitomizes the teacher/scholar role model we want all faculty to emulate.  She is an extremely valuable member of the department, college and university.  Her teaching and scholarship are exemplary.  I enthusiastically recommend her for a University Merit Award.”

Also in keeping with Lamar University’s commitment to academic excellence is the annual announcement of the University Research Scholar award, given to a faculty member selected by his or her peers for achievement in scholarly and creative activities. This year’s recipient is Qiang Xu, associate professor of chemical engineering in the Dan F. Smith Department of Chemical Engineering.

Xu’s research is in the areas of large-scale dynamic simulation and optimization, production scheduling and planning, multi-scale systems integration, soft-sensor technique development, and industrial pollution.  He has published more than 50 peer-reviewed research papers and has served as principal or co-principal investigator on funded projects totaling in excess of $1M. These include funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense and leading petrochemical companies. Together, he has received external funding totaling more than $1 million.