Biology Professor Janet Steele Receives UNK’s Distinguished Faculty Award – UNK News

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UNC Chancellor Doug Kristensen (right) presents the Leland Holdt/Security Mutual Life Distinguished Faculty Award to biology professor Janet Steele during Friday's winter celebration at the on-campus Health and Athletic Center.  (Photos by Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications)
UNC Chancellor Doug Kristensen (right) presents the Leland Holdt/Security Mutual Life Distinguished Faculty Award to biology professor Janet Steele during Friday’s winter celebration at the on-campus Health and Athletic Center. (Photos by Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications)

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KEARNEY – Dedicated Instructor. Amazing faculty member. First-class teacher-scholar. Exemplary role model.

These are some of the many superlatives students and colleagues use to describe Janet Steele.

The University of Nebraska-Kearney biology professor was honored with the Leland Holdt/Security Mutual Life Distinguished Faculty Award on Friday. UNK’s most prestigious faculty award is presented each year during the fall semester and honors an individual for their contributions to teaching, research and service. The award, which also honors UNK graduate Leland Holdt and commemorates his many years of leadership at Security Mutual Life, comes with a $5,000 stipend.

A faculty member at UNK since 1993, Steele teaches undergraduate and graduate courses, including anatomy and physiology classes, to students pursuing a career in healthcare.

“Janet’s teaching is not easy, but she invests a lot of time preparing for it and creating an educational environment where all students can thrive,” UNK biology professors Kim Carlson and Julie Shaffer write in their nomination letter.

The department’s co-chairs called Steele “arguably one of the best educators at UNK,” noting that she uses active learning strategies and peer-to-peer support systems to increase student engagement and understanding.

“Students understand why classes need to be rigorous and appreciate all the things she does to help them. You can truly tell that she cares about her learning and her success,” said Carlson and Shaffer.

Four current and former UNK students submitted letters in support of Steele’s nomination for the award, and they all contained the same glowing remarks.

Blase Rokusek completed his bachelor’s degree in psychobiology at the UNK in spring 2021 and is currently enrolled in the master’s program in biology. He called Steele “one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”

“DR. Steele has a way of making the material real,” he wrote. “In her lectures, an abstract concept becomes a real patient. She shows her students that what they are learning is important and applicable, and does extremely complex concepts accessible at the same time.”

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After completing the anatomy and physiology course, Rokusek served as an adjunct instructor, working with Steele to ensure other students were learning effectively.

“In this backstage look at the course, I could see how much Dr. Steele cares about the success of her students,” he said. “She is always thinking about how to improve her teaching and is always looking for new approaches to teaching. dr Steele puts an incredible amount of effort into her classes and her students gain so much from it.”

UNK biology professor Janet Steele uses cooling to teach students about the respiratory system during a Health Science Explorers summer camp.
UNK biology professor Janet Steele uses cooling to teach students about the respiratory system during a Health Science Explorers summer camp.

Charlie Bicak, who recently retired as vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, pointed to the high rates at which UNK health science students are accepted into clinical programs and vocational schools as evidence of Steele’s influence.

“The outstanding trait that Janet brings to her work is an authentic commitment to student success,” he explained. “She cares in a way that honestly humbles me.”

There are currently more than 750 UNK students interested in healthcare, and almost all of them will take one of Steele’s courses.

“Janet not only teaches them basic anatomy and physiology, but also how to apply the information to disease and clinical situations. This level of critical thinking and application of knowledge ensures that UNK students are very well prepared for professional health science education,” wrote Peggy Abels, Director of UNK Health Sciences.

In addition to her classroom duties, Steele advises biology majors and pre-health students, oversees faculty during the first year, and serves as director of online master’s programs in STEM education and health sciences. She was Chair of the Biology Department 2015-16, Associate Dean in the Office of Graduate Studies and Research 2017-18, Acting Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy from Fall 2018 to Fall 2020, and Acting Co-Chair of the English Department 2021-22.

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Steele has served on numerous campus and University of Nebraska System Committees; since 1993 she has been the official judge for Loper home volleyball games; and she presents during health science camps and workshops for middle and high school students.

“Janet has been a strong advocate for health sciences and a mentor to many of our students,” said Abels. “She is willing to go beyond her classroom teaching duties to assist us with activities, summer camp sessions and seminars for students interested in healthcare. Her impact on teaching and engaging students extends well beyond the classroom.”

Carlson and Shaffer know Steele as someone who “has the heart of a servant” and will never say “no” when help is needed.

“Janet is truly the go-to person for any assignment a department or committee may wish to undertake,” they wrote. “Service is part of their personality, whether it’s a student in need or a task force that needs a volunteer. Few people help as much as Janet.”

Steele’s research complements her teaching and focuses on topics such as cardiovascular and renal stress, as well as exercise and diabetes. She has 16 publications in scholarly journals, along with 36 abstracts and presentations, and her research has received more than $1.3 million in total grants. She is also a manuscript reviewer for the Journal of Biological Education.

Steele has mentored countless undergraduate and graduate students, including Rokusek, who worked with her on a study showing the effectiveness of the extra classes she implemented. Their findings were published in the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society Educator.

“This research is not only valuable for the UNK, but also for the university teaching community as a whole. dr Steele has a strong track record in educational research, helping teachers find new and better ways to teach their students,” Rokusek wrote. “I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Steele on the project because I learned so much from her once again.”

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Here’s what others had to say about Professor Janet Steele and her influence at UNK:

“DR. Steele is one of the most dedicated, engaging, energetic, creative, service oriented, dedicated professors I have ever had. Her students are more to her than just students; they are her friends and mentees. Every student that she has had as a teacher , is uniquely privileged.” – UNK graduate Mary Ann Bailey

“DR. Steele is a world-class teacher and scholar. Her research is related to her teaching practice. For decades, her anatomy and physiology students have enjoyed great success in the health professions and in graduate programs. Alumni alumni attribute their success to a variety of medical and… Graduate files often to Dr. Steele.” – Peter Longo, UNK Professor of Political Science and Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs

“I truly believe that here at UNK we have been blessed with some of the finest faculty in higher education. A high level of communication, accessibility, and caring is so common that it becomes easy for a student to take it for granted. Nonetheless, Dr. Steele in a community of great teachers above all others. Your ability to set yourself apart from the amazing faculty here at UNK speaks for itself. Although dr Steele is an amazing professor, it really sets her apart from the effort she puts into being there for students. dr Steele is a fixture in the UNK community and she truly is one of the best instructors UNK has to offer.” – Zach Zavodny, UNK medical student and student body vice president

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