Excellence in Teaching Chemistry
Dr.Neil Gray Receives Prestigious Minnie Stevens Piper Award
|Dr. Neil Gray (pictured giving guidance to students during chemistry lab) is a great teacher who is always available to help his students, says former student Jason Distefano
With excitement in his eyes and expression
in his voice, Dr. Neil Gray, associate professor
of chemistry at The University of Texas
at Tyler, imitates a kid in a candy store at
times. In the chemistry classrooms and
labs, one thing is certain: He is passionate
about teaching chemistry.
And it is Dr. Gray’s clear dedication to
teaching and sharing his knowledge with
students that makes him a worthy 2007
nominee and recipient of the Minnie
Stevens Piper Award. It is the first Piper
professorship for the university. Dr. Gray
received the award in recognition of his
“Dr. Gray is well deserving of this, and I
think he represents not only his department
and his college, but the UT System
very well,” said Dr. Richard Osburn,
UT Tyler provost and vice president for
academic affairs. “He has an outstanding
future in front of him. What this honor
means to the university is our continuing
growth and recognition within a system that is dedicated to excellence. This is the
first time the university has received this
recognition, and we certainly hope it’s not
our last time.”
Fifteen awards of $5,000 each are made
annually by the foundation to professors
for superior teaching at the college level.
Selection is made on the basis of nominations
submitted by each college or university
in Texas. Begun in 1958 with eight
awards, the roster of Piper professors
includes outstanding professors from twoand
four-year colleges as well as public
and private universities.
“I am honored to be a member of this
outstanding faculty, many of whom
deserve this award,” Dr. Gray said. “To be
nominated and then to receive this award
is certainly the biggest honor of my
Love for Learning
Dr. Gray was born into a rural East Texas
family, where raising children and hard labor
paid off. Education wasn’t top priority.
“My parents, both raised in rural East
Texas, inherited family traditions typical
of their culture and unfortunately, education
was seldom one of those traditions,”
said Dr. Gray.
At the age of 17, he left high school,
obtained a GED and joined the U.S.
Army. That’s when Dr. Gray’s love for
learning began. In his first year of service,
he participated in artillery fire competitions
that required geometry skills.
“At the time, my math skills were poor, so
I borrowed a couple of books from the
base library and began to teach myself
basic geometry,” he said. “I was surprised
to find that I was understanding most of it
and even more surprised to discover that I
really enjoyed the whole process of studying
a great deal. I began to realize how
valuable and exciting learning is and sorely
regretted not finishing school.”
As a result of his military service, Dr. Gray
was able to obtain financial assistance for
college, and he said he has never looked back.
UT Tyler Alumnus
After graduating from UT Tyler in 1990 with
a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, he
went to Texas A&M University and received
a Ph.D. He later completed a postdoctoral
fellowship at Los Alamos National
Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.
“Anything that gets UT Tyler’s name out
there is just a great thing,” Dr. Gray said.
“To be a part of it is just very humbling.”
A faculty member at UT Tyler since 1996,
Dr. Gray said he is inspired daily by the
excellent teachers with whom he works. In
fact, the teachers at his undergraduate alma
mater inspired him to pursue a teaching
“While a student at UT Tyler, I developed a
great respect for my teachers,” Dr. Gray said.
“It is an honor to be working now with
many of them. They were and still are
wonderful role models.”
And now, Dr. Gray is considered one of
those role models for students.
Students rank very highly the caring attitude
of our faculty, plus the quality of education
that is here,” Dr. Osburn added. “Students
appreciate the fact that he wants them to do
well and strives to help them do the best that
they possibly can.”
Jason Distefano, a former student of Dr.
Gray’s, is happy for the instructor he calls
“It’s terrific,” said Distefano of Dr. Gray’s
recent honor. “He’s a great teacher. He just
really gets into the material he’s talking
about. His tone of voice will pick up. You
can look at a teacher sometimes and tell
whether or not they’re excited about what
they’re teaching, and he’s excited about
what he teaches and what he does.
“Even outside of class, Dr. Gray was always
available for help. If you had trouble with a
certain subject you could always come by.
You never felt like you were taking away from
his time or that he was getting aggravated when
you stopped by his office almost every day,”
Distefano laughs. “He was always there for
you regardless. I think that is what makes a
really good teacher – they take the time outside
of class to help their students.”
Distefano, a 2004 UT Tyler graduate, originally
knew Dr. Gray as a professor, but now
he sees the professor in a different light.
“After I graduated, I became a part of the UT
Tyler staff, and now I get to work with him,”
Distefano said. “Even as a co-worker he cares
about us around here.”
UT Tyler 2007 graduate Christine Renson of
Troup remembers Dr. Gray as an encouraging
professor who put students first.
“He is very willing to work with you both
inside and outside of class,” said Renson, who
had Dr. Gray as her academic adviser. “If you
don’t understand he will restate it in any way
possible until you do understand. He knows
what he wants you to learn in the semester,
but if a topic takes a couple of extra days to go
through, that’s OK. It’s great because it takes
some of the stress out of class, while at the
same time, you learn everything he intended
‘Brilliant and Engaging’
Dr. Gray presents material in ways that
eliminate test regurgitation and maximize
the students’ understanding of topics,
according to Adam Lankford, UT Tyler senior.
“Dr. Gray is a brilliant and engaging
instructor,” the chemistry major said of his
professor. “He has a very unique style of
teaching that lends itself to understanding
complicated material. Dr. Gray promotes
‘common sense chemistry’ by emphasizing
the principles and foundations of a topic,
providing students with a second nature
approach to solving problems.”
Sean Butler of Gladewater, a 2004 UT Tyler
graduate, conducted undergraduate research
under the direction of Dr. Gray, who has
become a mentor and friend to him. Butler
graduated with a bachelor of science degree in
chemistry and is now enrolled in Ohio State
University’s graduate program.
“Dr. Gray really helped me,” Butler said.
“He is the reason that I would like to teach
at the college level.”
Awards and Honors
Among Dr. Gray’s numerous other teaching
awards and honors at UT Tyler are the
Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teaching
Award, the President’s Scholarly
Achievement Award, the Texas Alpha Chi
Chapter Outstanding Faculty Award and the
Jack and Dorothy Fay White Fellowship in
Teaching Excellence. He also served as the
2005-06 UT Tyler faculty senate president.
Dr. Gray also is a long-standing and active
member of the American Chemical Society
and heavily involved with the Student
Affiliate Chapter of the ACS at UT Tyler.
“Dr. Gray has demonstrated himself to be
an outstanding and effective teacher, scholar
and faculty leader at UT Tyler,” said Dr.
Don McClaugherty, UT Tyler chemistry
department chair. “He has a universitywide
reputation for being one of the most student-
oriented, dedicated faculty members.”
Outside the Classroom
Dr. Gray is not only dedicated to areas of
teaching but areas of service and research as
well. Outside the classroom, Dr. Gray can be
found helping those in need, whether it be
participating in canned food drives, or collecting
and distributing Christmas gifts to
needy children. He participates in various
venues serving the off-campus community
where he can stress to younger students the
importance of science and education.
Dr. Gray has co-authored multiple Welch
Foundation Department grant proposals
which brought forth awards totaling
$255,000. These grants provide scholarships
for undergraduate chemistry majors, allowing
them the opportunity to study chemistry
through participatory research.
Dr. Gray enjoys the thrill of seeing students
learn something for the first time. And he
said he will continue to show students how
exciting and fun chemistry can be.
“It is very fulfilling to share something that
you truly enjoy with others, mostly because
you get to see them enjoy it as well,” Dr.
Gray said. “That is exactly how I feel about
“I love this university and its students,
but most of all, I am grateful for the
opportunity to teach.”