Dr. Bonnie Smith, of Christiansburg, Va., has a passion for teaching that is as core to her being as bones are to a vertebrate.
The veterinary anatomist in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech has earned more than 20 teaching awards during her 23-year career.
Now, Smith has been awarded the national Carl J. Norden-Pfizer Distinguished Teaching Award, an honor that celebrates her as the best among the thousands of professors teaching in the nation’s 28 veterinary medicine colleges.
“I feel tremendously honored,” said Smith, who is the third faculty member in the college to be recognized with the national veterinary profession’s most prestigious teaching award in the past 10 years. “I feel tremendously humbled.”
Smith, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, was formally apprised of the honor in a letter sent from Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. You have the heartfelt congratulations and enduring gratitude of the entire veterinary profession,” wrote Pappaioanou in the letter. “You hold a very special place in our profession as an educator of the next generation of veterinarians, and you have shown yourself to be competent, caring and expert in your teaching ability.”
“This is our profession’s most prestigious teaching award and it commends a professor who has been recognized for teaching excellence throughout her career,” said Dr. Gerhardt Schurig, dean of the veterinary college, noting her achievement also speaks of the quality of instruction in the college. “We’re very proud of her.”
As a professor of anatomy and physiology, Smith teaches aspiring veterinarians gross anatomy, physiology, embryology, and morphology. Presented early in the curriculum, these courses are so sweeping in scope and detail that they can sometimes be overwhelming. Smith is well known for her ability to simplify the material and make it clinically applicable for students.
“I try to find a balance between teaching too much and teaching too little,” said Smith, adding that her goal is to provide her students with a level of understanding will enable them to be successful in school and in their professional careers. “I try to remember that I’m teaching DVM (doctor of veterinary medicine) students. I’m not teaching veterinary anatomists and I’m not teaching veterinary technicians.”
Smith sees the teaching process as a “partnership” between herself and her students. Her passion for teaching is fueled by her students’ “willingness and hard work,” she said, and she believes the national Norden award is as much a recognition of the partnership between teacher and student as it is a recognition of her.
“Let's face it,” said Smith, whose clothing and jewelry often features Celtic knots because of the wholistic, integrated nature of life that they symbolize. “The students are the reason that we’re here. The students need to matter. They must matter.”
Based upon the rapport she seems to have with her students, they certainly do. Smith can’t walk down a hall without veterinary students coming up to ask her how she is doing with her battle against cancer and giving her the occasional hug. It is apparent her students respect her as a mentor but trust her as a friend.
During Smith's tenure in the veterinary college, her student reviews have consistently placed her in the top three to four faculty members in the college, according to Dr. Blair Meldrum, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, a former associate dean for academic affairs in the college, and a person who participated in her nomination for the award.
"Bonnie epitomizes the qualities we have come to associate with teaching excellence," said Meldrum. "She has the uncommon ability to reach into students' minds and hearts to tailor instruction to meet individual learning styles and needs."
"She is a colleague for whom I have the highest regard," stated Meldrum. "Her actions are truly an example to those around her."
Sponsored by Pfizer Animal Health, this national award honors faculty members who have displayed outstanding teaching ability.
Smith received a bachelor of science and master of science in zoology, a doctor of veterinary medicine and a doctorate in veterinary anatomy with a minor in human anatomy from The Ohio State University. Before joining the college in 1991, Smith was a visiting assistant professor at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Her research interests are classical morphology, functional morphology, and teratology. Smith is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Veterinary Anatomists, and the American Association of Anatomists.