Texas A&M University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Karen L. Wooley has been named the 2021 SEC Professor of the Year, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey announced Monday.
Wooley, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and holder of the W.T. Doherty-Welch Chair in Chemistry in the College of Science, is one of the world’s foremost experts in materials and polymer chemistry and in creating new materials at the nanoscale level. She is the second Texas A&M recipient of the prestigious honor, the highest given to professors by the SEC, joining fellow Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and National Academy of Sciences member Marcetta Y. Darensbourg, who was named Texas A&M’s inaugural honoree in 2018.
“The SEC Professor of the Year award provides a unique opportunity to recognize one of the many faculty members who guide our students through meaningful learning experiences at each of our 14 member universities,” Sankey said. “As the 2021 SEC Professor of the Year, Dr. Wooley exemplifies all that we hope and expect a faculty member to be in the Southeastern Conference, and we are pleased to bestow upon her our highest faculty honor.”
Wooley joined the Texas A&M faculty in 2009 as a member of the Department of Chemistry, where she serves as director of the Laboratory for Synthetic-Biologic Interactions and heads up the Wooley Research Group. She was appointed as a distinguished professor in 2011 and named one of Texas A&M’s 24 inaugural Presidential Impact Fellows in 2017. In addition to a primary appointment in Texas A&M Chemistry, she holds joint appointments in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
Wooley’s research involves the synthesis and characterization of degradable polymers derived from natural products — pioneering work with widespread application and impact spanning multiple disciplines and industries, from the diagnosis and treatment of disease to the development of anti-icing coatings and eco-friendly environmental remediation systems. Her research also influences sustainability, resulting in new bioplastics that have reduced reliance on petrochemicals and break down naturally to produce biologically beneficial and environmentally benign degradation products.
“Dr. Wooley has been called the most accomplished and most promising polymer chemist of her era,” said Texas A&M Interim President John L. Junkins. “Her research has broad implications in a variety of fields, ranging from sustainability to nanoscience to the treatment and diagnosis of disease. In addition to being an internationally renowned researcher, she is also a sought-after mentor to female students and junior faculty who admire her for her ability to identify their interests, build on their strengths and help them create personalized development plans.”
The SEC Professor of the Year Award has been given annually since 2012 to one SEC faculty member whose record of teaching and research places him or her among the elite in higher education. Winners are selected by the SEC Provosts from among the 14 SEC Faculty Achievement Award recipients. In recognition of the honor, the SEC will provide Wooley with a $20,000 honorarium.
“These remarkable honors of being named, initially, as Texas A&M University’s selection for the SEC Faculty Achievement Award and, ultimately, as the SEC Professor of the Year are absolutely unbelievable,” Wooley said. “Since being recruited to Texas A&M more than a decade ago, I have been continually astounded by and appreciative of the support from all levels of the administration, colleagues, staff and students. I credit my achievements and success to them, especially my research team over the past three decades, and to my loving and supportive family.”
Karen Wooley in the lab with three students
Wooley’s research involves the synthesis and characterization of degradable polymers derived from natural products.
Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation
Texas A&M Interim Provost and Executive Vice President Mark H. Weichold said Wooley’s contributions to her field and university cannot be understated. He describes her as one of the most influential and innovative researchers in the polymer science community and an exceptional teacher and mentor who has built a program that is more than 50 percent female in the traditionally male-dominated field of chemistry. She recently served on the President’s Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Texas A&M and also was recognized as an ADVANCE Diversity Champion in 2020.
“Dr. Wooley’s impactful accomplishments in organic polymer chemistry, in parallel with her recognition as a preeminent educator and mentor, truly set her apart from her peers,” Weichold said. “Her record is a shining example of how one individual can excel simultaneously at research, teaching and service. Dr. Wooley is unquestionably most deserving of recognition as the SEC Professor of the Year for 2021.”
Wooley is co-founder and president of Sugar Plastics, LLC and chief technology officer of Teysha Technologies, LTD. In addition, she has served as a technical advisor and consultant for several companies, from Fortune 500 enterprises to start-ups and law firms. She is an executive editor and associate editor for the Journal of the American Chemical Society and has a strong record of service to the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Dutch Biomedical Materials Program. She also works to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and form collaborative relationships across her field by organizing national and international conferences.
“Dr. Wooley is among the most prominent chemists in world,” said Texas A&M Dean of Science and Distinguished Professor of Statistics Valen E. Johnson. “She serves as a contributor and advisor to numerous scientific organizations, including the National Science Foundation’s National Nanoscale Infrastructure Network and the National Institutes of Health’s Nanomedicine Development Centers. She has made a significant impact not only through her research, but also through her efforts in teaching and mentoring of graduate students. Her activity in promoting science within Texas A&M University and in the broader national community have been outstanding and will have a long-term impact on scientific research and education.”
Wooley is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (2014), American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2015), National Academy of Inventors (2019), American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (2020) and American Association for the Advancement of Science (2020). Her major career awards to date include the Royal Society of Chemistry’s 2014 Centenary Prize as well as the American Chemical Society’s 2015 Oesper Award and 2002 Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in Organic Chemistry. No stranger to trailblazing accomplishment, she previously made history in 2014 as the first woman to receive the ACS Award in Polymer Chemistry, a prestigious accolade honoring outstanding fundamental contributions and achievements toward addressing global needs for advanced polymer systems and materials. In 2016, she was recognized with a Texas A&M Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Award for Research.
A native of Oakridge, Oregon, Wooley earned her bachelor of science in chemistry from Oregon State University in 1988 and her Ph.D. in polymer/organic chemistry from Cornell University in 1993. She began her independent academic career that same year as an assistant professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis. She was promoted to professor with tenure in 1999 and named a James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences in 2006 prior to receiving a joint appointment in the School of Medicine, Department of Radiology in 2007.
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