Dr. Page Spiess receives ATHENA Young Professional Leadership Award® in November ceremony

Open door, open minds.

Dr. Page Spiess keeps her U Building office door ajar, where chemistry or biochemistry students can walk through to discuss experiments, analyze data and master lessons. When “aha” moments happen, and proverbial light bulbs go off over students’ heads, Spiess basks in the reflected glow.

“When you see a student in a classroom make the connection of topic … they say, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ You get to ride that emotional high with them,” Spiess said. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Last month, Spiess got a boost from the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which honored her with an ATHENA Young Professional Leadership Award®. The chemistry and biochemistry lecturer, who joined Norwich’s faculty in 2017, received her award at a Nov. 6 dinner at Montpelier’s Capitol Plaza Hotel.

“It’s amazing to see that our young faculty, especially our young female faculty are excelling not only in what they love to do, their content area, but also overall in society. A lot of what Page does for this institution is service.”Dr. Michael McGinnis, dean, Norwich University College of Science and Mathematics

The award, named for the mythological Greek goddess of strength, courage, wisdom and enlightenment, recognizes a woman, 40 or younger, who demonstrates excellence, creativity and initiative in their business or profession; contributes time and energy to improve others’ quality of life and who serves as a personal and professional role model for young women. Spiess, a Dresden, Maine, native who has lived in Randolph, Vermont, since 2013, self-nominated for the award in the summer, right under the wire; she turned 40 in October.

The award carries a $1,500 honorarium finalists may give to a charity of their choice; Spiess said she’ll give hers to Vermont Works for Women, a Winooski, Vermont-based nonprofit group working to create chances for people of all identities and backgrounds to thrive economically.

Spiess joined Dr. Tara Kulkarni, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering as an ATHENA finalist; Kulkarni, who directs the university’s Center for Global Security and Resilience, was up for an ATHENA Leadership Award®. Kulkarni will donate her honorarium to Steps to End Domestic Violence, a Burlington, Vermont-based nonprofit helping people affected physically, sexually, emotionally, or economically by domestic abuse transition to a safe, independent life.

At Norwich, Spiess developed new courses including Chemistry of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and worked with the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies to develop courses for the registered nurse-to-Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. She became an inaugural fellow of the university’s Institute for Innovation in Teaching and Learning this year and leads the university’s campus Academic Integrity Committee. 

Serving the community

In the community, Spiess has worked to help young women stay with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math studies), even when peer pressure might turn them away. She helped create and run the Rosie’s Girls STEM Leadership camps and the Women Can Do! conference at Vermont Technical College. She’s also on the board of trustees for the Clara Martin Center, a mental and behavioral health center, in Orange County Vermont.

Spiess said she always loved science, peppering adults as a child with pesky “why” questions — why is the sky blue, for example. She followed her father (the state archeologist for Maine) and her stepfather (a nuclear engineer) and paternal grandmother (a biochemistry doctorate holder who became a college professor) in pursuing science as a study and profession. 

Kulkarni spiess
Dr. Page Spiess, a Norwich University chemistry and biochemistry lecturer,  shows off her Young Professional Leadership Award®, flanked by Dr. Tara Kulkarni, an associate professor of engineering, left, and President Mark Anarumo on Nov. 6 at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier, Vermont. (Photo by Sarah Milligan/The Times Argus.)

A love for ocean life cultivated in Maine led Spiess to attend Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, to study biochemistry. As a work-study job, she typed reports about endangered dolphins, manatees or whales that died off the Florida or Georgia coasts for veterinarians. This work broadened her scientific knowledge, adding lessons about biology, anatomy and physiology. She earned a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of California, Davis.

Spiess said Norwich’s ever-closer-to-50-50 gender-balanced STEM staff and high-achievement ethos help women STEM students succeed. Tight-knit faculty, meanwhile, help classroom leaders succeed, she said, adding that Kulkarni has become a friend and mentor.

“We teach as a team,” she said. “If somebody gets injured or they have to step out for an appointment, or can’t quite make it to work because their car breaks down, we’ll cover for one another, no questions asked. It’s very helpful to work in that type of environment.”

Spiess’ award continues a tradition of excellence for rising women science professors at Norwich University. Associate professors of biology Dr. Allison Neal (2019) and Dr. Megan Doczi (2014), won Peggy R. Williams Emerging Professional Awards from the Vermont Women in Higher Education. 

“This shows that Norwich is producing not only rising stars but stars,” College of Science and Mathematics Dean Dr. Michael McGinnis said. “It’s amazing to see that our young faculty, especially our young female faculty are excelling not only in what they love to do, their content area, but also overall in society. A lot of what Page does for this institution is service.”

McGinnis added having Spiess and other women science faculty thrive helps the university attract more women science students.

“We know that students are attracted to majors when they have an interest, but also when there’s a mentor,” McGinnis said. “If the student can connect to the faculty member, they’re more likely to take up that major and be successful in graduating.”

Jumping in jubilation

At the awards dinner, Spiess sat with her husband; Kulkarni, Kulkarni’s husband and their daughter; and President Mark Anarumo, whom she was meeting in person for the first time. She said Anarumo was particularly eager to hear the winners announced, and leapt from his seat to deliver a bearhug as she headed to the stage to collect her trophy.

In a statement, Anarumo said he was proud of both Spiess and Kulkarni. 

“We are so proud at Norwich to have not just one, but two Norwich professors honored as finalists for such a prestigious recognition as the ATHENA Awards,” he said. “The ATHENA Leadership Awards’ emphasis on mentoring perfectly complements the Norwich model of service to others before self.”

“When Page won, I felt so proud. I know how hard she works and how much she has taken on. Her commitment to being the best teacher mentor she can be and contributing so meaningfully to the university and community through the many hats she wears all exude leadership.”Dr. Tara Kulkarni, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, Norwich University.

Though she didn’t win, Kulkarni said she was honored to be a finalist and admired the winner in her category, Lisa Keysar, insurer Union Mutual’s first female president in its 147-year history. Kulkarni said she was also glad to have her daughter Diya attend.

“It was perfect that she got to see that we don’t always have to win to have an impact through what we do and who we are.” Kulkarni said of her daughter. “She also got to see Page win, which was exciting for all of us. … When Page won, I felt so proud. I know how hard she works and how much she has taken on. Her commitment to being the best teacher mentor she can be and contributing so meaningfully to the university and community through the many hats she wears all exude leadership.”

Spiess said she’s happy to have the award to ornament her desk, but said her mission remains unchanged — come early, stay late and leave the office door ever open so students can enter and succeed.

“Tara and I have talked about this, whether we were going to win the award or not, we wouldn’t stop doing what we’re doing on a daily basis,” she said. “This doesn’t change who we are, this doesn’t change the direction that we’re going.”

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