John Asbury, professor of chemistry at Penn State, has been named a recipient of the 2022 Distinguished Service Award, which was established in 1979 to recognize faculty and staff who have made significant and outstanding leadership and service contributions to the Eberly College of Science over a sustained period of time.
Asbury was nominated for the award in recognition of his work to empower students to improve lab safety and awareness in the chemistry department. For almost a decade, he has led the Student Safety Leadership Team in Chemistry, which provides input from students in order to foster safety awareness in the department and to help research groups navigate changes to safety regulations. These efforts have generated a number of student-led safety initiatives such as the Stall Street Journal, where safety reminders were displayed in bathroom stalls, and Safe Operation Cards, which provide information on chemical, and safety responsibilities. They also led to the Learning Experience, which requires that students and faculty document safety issues and near-misses in the lab while also suggesting solutions to avoid such incidents in the future – a practice now implemented in five departments at Penn State. Additionally, Asbury has served as the co-organizer of the Materials Safety Olympics in which faculty, students, and staff from across the University compete based on their knowledge of safe laboratory practices and connect with industrial sponsors of the event.
“To me, the most important outcome of these efforts was the change in the attitude towards safety from the student point-of-view,” said one nominator. “This led to a safety culture, where student safety is appropriately treated as a precious commodity that must be protected. Indeed, John drove the attitude that safety is owned by the students, all the time guided by his gentle hand.”
Another nominator added that the improved safety culture in research laboratories extends beyond the department. “What our undergraduate, graduate student, and postdoctoral trainees learn in our laboratories and our department stays with them and spreads to their future workplaces.“
Since 2020, Asbury has taken on the role of Associate Head for Graduate Education in the department. In this role, he has faced additional challenges and responsibilities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including organizing late-arrival students, remote learning, and remote research group activities for incoming graduate students. After a change to the qualifying exam to accommodate late arrivals due to the pandemic, he successfully led nearly all of the first-year chemistry graduate students through their exams and onto their second years.
“In this role, he represents the department as a calming, caring presence that supports the students and wants them to succeed. We all benefit from his efforts probably more than we are aware,” added one nominator.