Five questions for the awards shepherd

Kirsten Abel head shot


The basics:

Name: Kirsten Abel, inaugural honors and awards coordinator, office of the senior vice president and provost
Years in the position: 3.5
Years at ISU: 6 (previously in the office of sponsored programs administration)
Supervisor: Associate provost for faculty Dawn Bratsch-Prince

Similar to many structures at Iowa State, the university's faculty awards process is decentralized. Some departments have robust, decades-old award committees, some don't yet have a formal process. As a one-person, data-driven shop, Kirsten Abel is a resource for the entire campus and helps fill in around existing structures. She connects an awards committee to resources that help identify recognition opportunities. She visits with a department about how to begin to build an awards process and strategy. She works with faculty affinity groups that are award champions for their members. She also works with campus communicators to help shine a light on specific faculty and their work.

She said she limits herself to being active in 10 nominations at any time, but helps get many more to the finish line.

"Almost all of my emails begin with 'I'm just checking in,'" she said. "My primary role is as a shepherd."

Beyond the satisfaction of "winning," why are awards important?

We want Iowa State University to be a place where faculty can grow in their careers. We want to support a culture of recognition here. Awards are stepping stones to more success. We've found a strong correlation between awards, recognition, competitive funding success and service opportunities. Recognition is an important component to help our faculty be successful.

What's a frequent misperception you run into?

'Awards are for senior faculty, and I'm not there yet.' That's just not true. There's a continuum of awards throughout the faculty lifecycle, from young investigator to lifetime achievement. There are many opportunities for junior and mid-career faculty; in fact, that's probably the most important time to be thinking about recognition for your work. These are building blocks.

How should a faculty member in any discipline prepare to be a strong nominee?

Some of these might seem obvious, but they all count:

  • Keep your CV updated.
  • Maintain a summary document of your grants.
  • Have an online presence, for example a website for your lab.
  • Join disciplinary societies, but also be involved and offer volunteer service to them.
  • Network and collaborate in your discipline. Don't be a lab hermit.
  • Save letters of support. Later, it may be easier to start from "something" than to start from nothing.
  • In your annual performance review, include a conversation about awards and recognition you're interested in pursuing. It sets that expectation with your department. It might be in your college, a university award, an award in Iowa, but it helps to self-identify a few -- and receive input on timing and appropriateness.
  • Remember the door swings both ways. If you receive an award and that puts you in a position to nominate someone else, do it.

What's your best advice for a faculty member ready to vie for external honors?

Two things: First, be involved in your nomination packet (except for rare cases when the nomination is a secret). No one knows your work or its impact better than you. Second, nomination letters of support should come from people who know you and know your work. Letters written off of your CV -- even by someone with a prestigious title -- are easy to spot, and reviewers know the difference immediately.

Does a rejected nomination mean it's time to find a different award?

Not at all. Persistence is one of my strongest messages to faculty. Some people get very demoralized when they don't receive recognition immediately for something. I never think a nomination is a waste of time. If you don't play, you won't win. It's really important to get feedback, hone the nomination and put your name in the hat again. An unsuccessful nomination package is the beginning of a successful one, whether it's for the same award or a different one.