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Rebel With a Cause

September 07, 2010

Dr. Toni Sauncy has gone from loathing physics as a student to winning awards as a faculty member in ASU’s Physics Department.

During the 2009-10 academic year, Sauncy was president of the ASU Faculty Senate, faculty advisor for ASU’s award-winning Society of Physics Students (SPS), president of the Texas Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers and president of the SPS National Council. For her dedication to ASU and her students, she received the 2010 ASU President’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Leadership/Service.

Not bad for someone who used to ride a Harley Davidson and claims to be the only physicist her age (that she knows of) who has tattoos.

A non-traditional student, Sauncy did not start full-time college until she was already married with two kids. She was living in Big Spring and going to Texas Tech to get her mathematics degree when her commuting partner (a physics minor) talked her into minoring in physics so they could make easier travel schedules. Though her physics education did not start well, she draws on that early experience to help her own students.

“I truly loathed my first year of physics,” Sauncy said. “That is why, for me, it is critically important that my freshman students do not have the same experience. It gives me a good perspective because I remember very well what it was like to sit there and be completely confused about every word being said. So, I try really hard not to do that.”

“But, after I started taking some advanced physics courses, I loved it,” she added. “After my first course in optics, I was hooked.”

After earning her B.S. in mathematics, Sauncy was invited by one of her first physics mentors to join Texas Tech’s physics graduate program. It was then that she first became involved with the Society of Physics Students.

The SPS is a national organization that promotes student research and public physics outreach. Sauncy has been the faculty advisor for the ASU chapter since 2001, and has helped it gain recognition from the national SPS as one of the top chapters in the U.S.

“I think our chapter is very active in comparison to the entire nation,” Sauncy said. “I have the privilege of seeing chapter reports from all over the U.S., and we compare with any group anywhere in terms of what we do, our activities, our involvement with the campus and the community.”

Another key aspect of Sauncy’s service is the mentoring of undergraduate students’ research projects in her area of expertise and well beyond. In 2001, she received a National Science Foundation grant to purchase optical spectroscopy and electrical characterization equipment for her lab. Since then, she has mentored more than 40 student research projects that resulted in over 50 presentations at regional, national and international professional conferences.

“Nearly all of my research students go to graduate school,” Sauncy said. “I have a strong commitment to making sure that they are as well prepared as anybody else; that after working with me for a couple of years they can walk into a lab and do something intelligent. Even if it is not in their particular area of expertise, they will at least know how to handle themselves as scientists. That is a big deal for me.”

A 10-year ASU faculty member, Sauncy first came to Angelo State because its Physics Department already had a strong reputation. She has done her best to enhance that reputation on the local, regional and national levels.

“I love physics and I love learning new things and participating in new ideas and discoveries,” Sauncy said. “But, I also very much value the opportunity to build relationships with students and to know very clearly that I have had an impact on the lives of the students I interact with every day.”

“I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I can’t believe I get paid,” she added. “I would do this anyway. It’s not just a way to make a living for me. I just really love what I do.”

Sauncy and her husband, Bill, have two kids, Clay Sauncy and Shae Patyrak. Clay is in law school at Texas Wesleyan, and Shae is in medical school at UT-Southwestern. In her rare spare time, she plays the flute and periodically performs with the Concho Valley Flute Choir.