Sparks wins distinguished mentoring award from Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools

April 19, 2010 under CANR News

Donald L. Sparks, the University of Delaware’s S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Soil and Environmental Chemistry and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute, has won the Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award from the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools.

The prestigious award, bestowed in memory of the association’s former president, recognizes outstanding mentoring support of graduate students.

Sparks received the award, which included a certificate and cash prize of $1,000, on Friday, April 16, in Montreal at the annual meeting of the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools. The association, one of four regional affiliates of the Council of Graduate Schools, has members from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec.

So far, during his distinguished 31-year career at the University of Delaware, Sparks has mentored 49 graduate students, from coursework through research and job placement. He has created an internationally prominent graduate program in environmental soil chemistry, authored more than 280 scientific publications and three textbooks, served as an invitational speaker at 67 universities and institutes on four continents, successfully competed for more than $31 million in research contracts and grants, and won numerous awards and honors, including the University’s highest academic recognition, the Francis Alison Award, and UD’s Doctoral Student Advising and Mentoring Award, of which he was the first recipient.

Yet the accomplishments of his students give Sparks the greatest satisfaction.

“You can be the greatest scientist or engineer in the world, but there’s more to it than that,” notes Sparks philosophically. “Mentoring students has been a wonderful part of my career — nothing has been more meaningful to me than to see them go out into the world as young scientists.”

“We congratulate Don on this terrific accomplishment and also honor his commitment to providing graduate students at the University of Delaware with the finest education possible,” said Debra Hess Norris, vice provost for graduate and professional education. “He is truly inspiring and serves as a role model for so many on our campus and beyond.”

The official nominating package, which was assembled and submitted by Norris and assistant provost Mary Martin, was filled with heartfelt testimonials from Sparks’ former students, as well as the admiration of faculty colleagues.

“The accomplishments of Don’s students are evidence that he provides sound advice with regard to coursework, expects excellence from his students, invests his own time in assuring student success, encourages timely publication and presentation of research results, and assists with placement of graduates in high-profile positions that will advance their careers,” noted Robin Morgan, dean of the UD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Sparks’ students in plant and soil sciences have earned numerous accolades over the years, including three Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor in the U.S. for beginning scientists and engineers; three UD Theodore Wolf Dissertation Prizes; two Emil Truog Soil Science Outstanding Dissertation Prizes; NSF and NASA graduate fellowships; three University Presidential Achievement Awards and other competitive fellowships; and the prestigious Clark Medal for postdoctoral research from the Geochemical Society of America and the European Association of Geochemists.

Former students wrote of Sparks’ concern for their success on both professional and personal levels.

Scott Fendorf, who received his doctorate in plant science from UD in 1992, and is now professor and chair of environmental and Earth system science at Stanford University, wrote: “My impression of Dr. Sparks is that he views his students as his children, and he is truly an amazing (academic) father to all of us — during not only our time as his students but throughout our careers. The time he afforded us to discuss matters of balancing personal and professional activities, where our careers should head, where jobs might be coming, and how to position ourselves to successfully obtain positions we sought were all regular points of conversation. Not only do I consider Dr. Sparks my Ph.D. adviser, but a life-long friend and mentor.”

Maarten Nachtegaal, who earned his doctorate in plant and soil sciences in 2003, and is now head of the In-Situ X-Ray Spectroscopy Group at the Paul Scherrer Institut in Switzerland, noted that Sparks even helped him with a first apartment rental.

“I am Dutch, so when I came to the U.S. I had no credit history,” Nachtegaal wrote. “Don signed the apartment lease for me and my wife so that we could rent an apartment, similarly as loving parents would have done. Don is not only the best mentor I could have ever wished for, but also a great friend for life.”

When asked the secret to his mentoring success, Sparks noted that setting a good example is important, as well as cultivating a positive group dynamic among his students, who are often diverse not only in their academic interests, but also in their cultural heritage.

“I’ve always had high standards,” says Sparks. “I expect a lot from my students, yet I also try to be a nice person. I want to be a really good scientific adviser, and also care a lot about my students as individuals. They see me working hard, too, and I feel that’s important.”

Sparks and his students meet as a group over lunch twice a month, and he meets individually with each student at least once a month. Dinners at his home are fun events that often involve the research group in preparing recipes from the home country of one of their international colleagues, from Swiss fondue to Chinese stir-fry. Such events are entertaining, educational, and help build a strong esprit de corps, Sparks says.

Also important, Sparks says, is giving students the independence to explore research questions, as well as professional opportunities to co-author papers, work on research grants, and present at conferences, which contributes to their maturity as scientists. In fact, some of his students have bypassed postdoctoral research and gone directly from graduate school into faculty positions.

“It’s been an amazing group of students,” Sparks notes. “Whatever I’ve accomplished, they’ve been a big part of.”

Article by Tracey Bryant
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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