Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor with the Department of Geosciences, and Leo Piilonen, a professor with the Department of Physics, are recipients of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s 2019 Outstanding Faculty Awards.

The award is the commonwealth’s highest honor for faculty at Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities, recognizing commitment to excellence in teaching, research, knowledge integration, and public service. Since 1987, 33 Virginia Tech faculty members have received the award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).

Nominees are selected by the institutions, reviewed by a panel of peers, and chosen by a committee of leaders from both public and private sectors. In all, 86 nominations were submitted this year, with a total of 13 recipients selected, according to SCHEV. Piilonen and Nesbitt, each part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, will be honored at a luncheon March 7 at The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.

Sterling Nesbitt

A fifth-year assistant professor, Nesbitt is a vertebrate paleontologist who uses his passion to inspire others to explore Earth’s history. His research lab of undergraduate and graduate students explores the origins of vertebrate diversity and shape, reptile evolution, and how to use recent technologies to study long-extinct animals. On campus, Nesbitt is known for co-hosting fossil unpacking events, where members of the community, especially children, are invited to unpack fossils found and collected by Nesbitt and fellow members of the Virginia Tech Paleobiology Research Group.

SCHEV is honoring Nesbitt as a Rising Star for early-career achievement. He has published more than 100 peer-reviewed publications, and in 2017, Nesbitt was awarded the Donath Medal, which is the Geological Society of America's Young Scientist Award. 

His research focuses on the evolution of Mesozoic terrestrial vertebrate fossils through major Earth events, such as climate change and extinction events, with a keen interest in reptile evolution. His fieldwork has taken him around the world with fellow researcher Michelle Stocker, also an assistant professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech, and has made numerous international headlines. He is a faculty member with the Global Change Center.

“Sterling truly is the complete package — a creative and effective educator, a stellar researcher, and a dedicated public servant,” said Steve Holbrook, department head of Geosciences. “He has reimagined our undergraduate curriculum, made extraordinary contributions to our knowledge of Earth history, and made a lasting impact on Virginia Tech's engagement with the public. I would be hard pressed to imagine a more fitting recipient for the SCHEV Rising Star award.”

Nesbitt earned a bachelor of arts in integrative biology from the University of California at Berkeley in 2004 and a doctoral degree in geosciences from Columbia University in 2009.

Leo Piilonen

A member of the Department of Physics for 31 years, Piilonen said he is “inspired by the quest to discover the rules of the natural world and the opportunity to convey this love of physics to his students.”

Raised in a small Canadian village with a one-room cabin schoolhouse until he was in junior high, Piilonen would later earn a bachelor’s in physics from the University of Toronto in 1978 and a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University in 1985. He joined Virginia Tech in 1987, later serving as chair of the Department of Physics from 2012 to 2015. Since the late 1990s, his research has been carried out with the Belle and Belle II detectors, highly detailed “digital cameras” that observe the byproducts of the energetic collisions produced by the SuperKEKB particle accelerator in Tsukuba, Japan.

He is co-author of more than 500 peer-reviewed papers and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and was a recipient of the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. He has won multiple university awards for teaching – including the William E. Wine Award, the university’s highest teaching honor – and for his efforts in access and inclusion for students with disabilities.

“In his over three decades at Virginia Tech, Leo has been a consummate faculty member, consistently achieving excellence in all aspects of the faculty mission,” said Mark Pitt, chair of the Department of Physics. “We are lucky to have him on our faculty and grateful to SCHEV for this recognition he so richly deserves.”

Related stories

Geological Society of America honors Sterling Nesbitt with Young Scientist Award

Virginia Tech scientists discover early dinosaur cousin had a surprising croc-like look

Researchers help world’s newest atom-smasher achieve ‘first turns’