2019 Biggs Award for Excellence in Earth Science Teaching

Presented to Sarah L. Sheffield

Sarah L. Sheffield

Sarah L. Sheffield
University of South Florida


Citation by Jennifer Bauer and Victor Ricchezza

Sarah is a scientist and educator whose passion for science is infectious. Sarah’s wealth of knowledge acts as a catalyst for conversations about climate change, evolution, geology, and paleontology in a variety of environments - including with taxi drivers, on airplanes, and in other unconventional spaces.

Sarah’s passion for understanding complex evolutionary patterns extends into her work, classroom, and outreach activities. She is a strong advocate for evolution education in K–16 classrooms. Sarah coordinated annual Darwin Day celebrations at the University of Tennessee open to all members of the community to engage with various aspects of evolutionary science.

In the classroom, Sarah works to showcase diverse scientists with her ‘Scientist of the Week’ series. Students responded positively, including telling her that because of these efforts to showcase ‘people that look like them’, they can better envision themselves in different STEM careers. This weekly discussion of scientists has immense potential to make our field more accessible and diverse.

Sarah extends beyond her professional duties by being accessible to her students and those in the department. In her short time at the University of South Florida she has provided mentorship to countless students of all backgrounds, STEM disciplines, and career stages. When she encounters a student, who needs support outside of her area of expertise or experiences, she finds a mentor who does have shared experiences with the student to better serve them. This strong mentorship extends out of the classroom to her peer group where Sarah actively supports and encourages other early career researchers. To her, it’s rewarding and worthwhile to help others succeed by sharing her experiences and resources.

Sarah supports a diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible geoscience community and certainly has contributed to opening the doors to many students that may otherwise not have interacted with geology.


Response by Sarah L. Sheffield

I chose geology because I loved it from the first lecture I attended- I knew I had to be the person in front of the classroom someday. However, making that dream a reality- becoming a professor- was difficult. As a low-income student, I worked multiple jobs and I struggled with illnesses that made it difficult to always attend classes. Even though I worked hard, I graduated with my B.S. with a low GPA. I was told I wasn’t suited for academia many times. I experienced gender discrimination, as many women in academia do, and unfortunately, I didn’t meet many women geologists to help me navigate this issue. Often, I felt like these barriers were insurmountable. 

With great thanks to a group of incredible scientists, who have supported me along this journey, like my citationists, Drs. Jennifer Bauer and Victor Ricchezza, I have become an assistant professor at The University of South Florida, working with the best students I’ve ever met. My students come from every walk of life – they’re immigrants, low income, first generation, disabled, gender diverse, people of color, veterans, neurodiverse, parents, LGBTQ+, and so much more. But really, the best word to describe my students is determined. My students show up every day, ready to work, but many face significant barriers to achieving their goals. I think back to what would have made college less of a struggle for me: professors who understood the struggles of working students or who vocally supported underrepresented groups in science. I try to be whoever that person is for my students, and help remove barriers to create the best possible learning environment: one where they know they are celebrated for exactly who they are and where they can vocalize their needs, whether it be access to a food pantry, flexible office hours times, or someone to explain a concept just one more time.

 I highlight scientists every day that represent the amazing diversity I see in my students, to change perceptions of who scientists are, and to introduce every student to scientists that share their backgrounds. We do this as an intentional part of the course, with honest discussions to address the systemic barriers and biased studies that have produced the lack of inclusion we see in STEM today. In the geosciences, especially, where diversity efforts have so far only increased the number of white women, I want my students to understand that science isn’t exempt from discrimination and exclusion and for them to recognize that they can be the generation that demands we do better. I absolutely hope my students love geology and use what science they learn, but my deeper hope is that my students learn that they are capable of anything and that they look back to lessen these barriers for the next generation in their careers, no matter where life takes them. I can’t begin to say how honored I am to have been nominated and chosen for this award. Thank you.