FSU Faculty Member Jason Speights Honored With USM Regents Award for Mentoring

Apr 12, 2018 12:50 PM

Dr. Jason Speights, director of Frostburg State University’s Multimedia Learning Center (MLC) and Planetarium and assistant professor of physics, has been awarded the Regents’ Faculty Award for Excellence in Mentoring, the highest honor that the University of Maryland Board of Regents bestows to recognize exemplary faculty achievement. He will be honored at the April 20 meeting of the board.

“All of my greatest successes trace back to great mentors in my life, so it’s enjoyable to give back those experiences,” Speights said.

Speights’ honor marks the ninth time since 2007 that the regents honored an FSU faculty member. The award takes into account the impact a faculty member had on students during the previous three years.

“Dr. Speights takes pride in his hands-on interactions with students that result in the application of student learning to real-life projects,” said FSU President Ronald Nowaczyk. “Some of these are clearly research-focused. Others have focused on developing students as mentors or training students to use and instruct others in the use of our campus observatory.”

Speights has “shown exceptional proclivity for mentoring, which has allowed numerous students to do amazing things they would not have been able to do on their own,” said Dr. Eric Moore, chair of FSU’s Department of Physics and Engineering and an associate professor.

Speights joined FSU in 2012 and helped with the transition of the FSU Planetarium from its longtime home at Tawes Hall to the newly constructed MLC and Planetarium inside the Catherine R. Gira Center for Communications and Information Technology, which opened in 2014. It would not be uncommon to see Speights spend late nights under the stars helping students look for stars and test equipment. He also provides the students he mentors with a room furnished with such necessities as a computer, white board and coffee maker, next to his office, allowing them to work together on projects and have easy access to him for questions and advice.

In 2015, as associate director of the MLC, Speights guided students to help assemble and program components and new software for the rooftop observatory to capture deep space images. These hands-on opportunities allowed students to develop skills for research as well as prepare public planetarium shows. In 2016, Speights became director of the MLC and Planetarium at FSU following the retirement of Dr. Robert Doyle. Speights also advises the Physics and Engineering Club.

Dustin Ullery said his time with Speights at the MLC was invaluable, helping to pave his way to graduate school.

“He helped teach me how to bring astronomy and astrophysics to a non-academic crowd through the planetarium shows each week,” Ullery said. “Not only was he instrumental in driving my love of sharing physics with the world, but he also gave me the opportunity to set up and characterize the Frostburg State observatory.”

Speights’ approach to mentoring is to empower students by providing guidance to answers, allowing them to come to their own conclusions. That made a lasting impression on Ullery.

“The biggest help to me was teaching me to find the answers through critical thinking rather than being handed the results,” he said. “This set me up for a lot in life. Without Dr. Speights and his mentorship, I would not understand that simple fact that life does not always provide a direct answer.”

Speights has mentored nearly 40 students in the last three years in a variety of roles and disciplines, with several students recognized for national achievements and acceptance to graduate and doctoral programs.  

Jacob Lichtenberg graduated with dual degrees in physics and materials engineering. Lichtenberg spent time as Speights’ teaching assistant and research assistant, presenting – as first author – a poster on the rotational speed of a disk-shaped galaxy NGC 3184’s spiral arms at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

“His mentoring style created an unrestrained learning environment, in the sense that he encouraged students to thoroughly evaluate all solutions to a problem,” said Lichtenberg, now an associate mechanical engineer for Orbital ATK. “Coupling this with his knowledge, the impact on me is immeasurable.”

Other research completed by Speights’ mentees included the “Radial Flow Speed of Neutral Hydrogen in the Oval Distortion of NGC 4736” and the “Dynamical Relationship Between Bar and Spiral Patterns of NGC 1365.” The NGC 4736 study was presented at the 229th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society and looked at a galaxy commonly known as Messier 94 to understand where the fuel for star formation comes from. The NGC 1365 study was published in 2016 in The Astrophysical Journal by Speights and 2015 graduate Paul Rooke. That study showed that the bar is rotating more quickly than the spiral arms, which challenges the common assumption that these types of patterns in galaxies co-rotate.

Additionally, Speights’ students have continued successful academic journeys with acceptance to physics doctoral programs at Clemson University and Rensselear Polytechnic Institute and Master of Science physics programs at Towson University.

As much as Speights challenges students with academics, it’s his welcoming, warm approach imparting sage life advice that students grow to value.

“I could speak for quite some time about the impacts of Dr. Jason Speights on my life, but when I look at the lasting effects he has had on my life, I could not be more proud to have met him and had an experience so rich with the mentoring he provided,” said 2015 alumnus Adam Bosley, who also earned his Master of Arts in Teaching at FSU in 2016.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit www.frostburg.edu or facebook.com/frostburgstateuniversity. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.