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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 extraordinary teaching.

“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 academic career.”

Chris Field

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 profession.

“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.

‘Caring Attitude’
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 “caring.”

“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 you to.”

‘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 chemistry.

“I love this university and its students, but most of all, I am grateful for the opportunity to teach.” 

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