Dr. Alan R. Dabney, associate professor of statistics, has been recognized with the 2021 Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence Award, the most prestigious faculty honor bestowed by Texas A&M University in recognition of classroom performance.
Dabney, who is the first recipient in the Texas A&M Department of Statistics’ history, joins Dr. Wei-Jung Chen, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics in the College of Medicine, in being honored with the award. Both were formally recognized today (Apr. 30) during the opening session of the 2021 Transformational Teaching and Learning Conference, presented virtually by the Office of the Dean of Faculties in partnership with the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Office for Academic Innovation.
“Dr. Dabney and Dr. Chen have set a standard for others to follow at this university,” said Texas A&M Interim President John L. Junkins. “Their extraordinary service to students is admired by those they have taught as well as their colleagues across Texas A&M.”
The prestigious award, established in 2003 by former Texas A&M President Robert M. Gates to underscore the importance of teaching at a major research university, provides for presentation each year of two Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence Awards. Each comes with a one-time, after-tax $25,000 stipend that includes the title of “Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence” — a designation retained by the recipient for the remainder of his or her career. Like their predecessors, the two professors are recognized in perpetuity for their sustained excellence and fundamental contributions to student advancement in independent thinking, creative imagination, lifetime learning and discovery-based knowledge.
Dabney, who joined the Texas A&M Statistics faculty in 2006 after earning his Ph.D. in biostatistics from the University of Washington that same year, is known as an engaging professor and presenter with a reputation for dynamic and motivational instruction across all majors. He was appointed to a 2016-2019 Eppright Professorship, one of two University Professorships in Undergraduate Teaching Excellence (UPUTE), and is one of two faculty advisors who helped lay the groundwork for Texas A&M’s bachelor of science in statistics, launched in fall 2016 and currently featuring about 200 students with an average of 40 graduates per year. His previous teaching awards include Texas A&M Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Awards in Teaching at both the college (2011) and university levels (2017) as well as the Montague-CTE Scholar Award for the College of Science in 2009.
In this 2017 episode of I Am Texas A&M Science, Dabney discusses his research in statistics, data sets and related applications to public health:
During the past decade and a half at Texas A&M, Dabney has dedicated himself to undergraduate teaching, building a solid reputation for excellence in transforming complicated material into easily accessible lessons and in developing inventive curricula for use by other faculty. His work as co-chair of the department’s Undergraduate Committee, chair of the Undergraduate Minor Committee and the inaugural undergraduate advisor for the B.S. in Statistics program culminated in his appointment to the position of Associate Head for Teaching Excellence in 2019. He also serves as departmental liaison to the Texas A&M Institute of Data Science.
Dabney is lauded for his non-conventional methods of teaching statistics, ranging from a comic book for non-statisticians he co-authored in 2013 to widespread praise from the likes of The Economist, Scientific American and Publishers Weekly, to a W.H. Freeman-produced 35-segment video series on introductory statistics for undergraduate students. In addition, he has published a computer simulation in the journal Teaching Statistics that can be used in the classroom to teach introductory statistics.
“Dr. Dabney’s qualifications for this award are evident in his exceptional commitment to undergraduate students, his consistently high teaching evaluation scores, his innovative and influential textbook and teaching materials, his leading role in the development of an undergraduate major in statistics, and most recently, his dedicated departmental work as associate head for teaching excellence,” said Dr. Branislav Vidakovic, professor and head of Texas A&M Statistics and inaugural holder of the H.O. Hartley Chair in Statistics.
Beyond statistics education, Dabney also boasts considerable expertise in the analysis and interpretation of big data, particularly that which originates from biological applications and bioinformatics. He regularly collaborates across disciplines on the analysis of biostatistics and bioinformatics data. In addition, Dabney is active in advising undergraduates — and even local high school students — in performing simple research tasks and related analyses.
“When people ask me why I chose to pursue statistics, I think back to Dr. Dabney’s teaching and mentorship as one of the key reasons,” said one of his students in a letter supporting his nomination. “Soon after taking his STAT 211 class, I started working with Dr. Dabney on undergraduate research in statistics. This was a formative experience for me, which revealed to me the excitement and creativity that exists in current statistics research: a perspective that is all too difficult to see when taking a typical introductory statistics class.”
In 2017, Dabney developed a new interdisciplinary course, Rational Learning, that blends probability, scientific inquiry, philosophy and psychology as part of a common-sense approach toward purposeful mindfulness and a more inclusive and compassionate worldview. Another of his students spoke to his understanding, approachable nature and willingness to support students who are struggling, often due to circumstances outside of the classroom.
“I was not doing well in the class, and I decided to let him know what was happening,” the student wrote. “I was very hesitant since my situation was complicated and difficult to talk about. However, when I told him, he made me feel comfortable and shared with me some of his personal experience… . He planted hope in me — in me as a person before as a student… . He is not a normal professor; he is an extraordinary person and professor.”
Nominations for the Presidential Professor awards are made by students, faculty members and deans in each of the university’s colleges and schools. To be eligible for the award, nominees must be full-time faculty and hold the rank of lecturer, senior lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, professor or distinguished professor.
Dabney is the ninth College of Science faculty member to merit the coveted honor since its inception in 2003, the same year in which physics professor Dr. William H. Bassichis earned selection as one of the award’s two inaugural recipients. Chemistry professors Dr. David E. Bergbreiter (2006), the late Dr. John L. Hogg (2007), Dr. Wendy L. Keeney-Kennicutt (2009) and Dr. Larry Brown (2013) also received the honor, while mathematics professor Dr. Harold P. Boas became the first recipient in the Department of Mathematics’ history in 2012. Physics professor Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova also merited the distinction in 2017. Last year, biology professor Asha Rao earned the award as the inaugural recipient from the Department of Biology.
To learn more about the Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence Award or other Texas A&M faculty recognitions and honors, visit the Dean of Faculties website.