A heartwarming tribute

Named spaces in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences STEM Building honor longtime VCU chemistry professor, administrator

Mike Hunnicutt, Ph.D., knows how to keep a secret. For months, he had been working with VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences on a special gift for his wife, Sally Hunnicutt, Ph.D.

Mike, a recently retired associate professor from the Department of Chemistry, and Sally, current associate dean in the College of Humanities and Sciences and professor in the Department of Chemistry, had excitedly watched the new STEM Building at 817 W. Franklin Street take shape over the past few years. Sally was a key player in the design, construction and operation of the building, and no one was more overjoyed at the April opening than she. Knowing her passion, Mike arranged to name two spaces in the new building in Sally’s honor – the Science Hub, a dedicated space for science and math tutoring, and an organic chemistry lab.

The named spaces were unveiled at a small gathering on the second floor of the building – a ceremony that caught Sally by surprise.

“I was completely surprised. It didn't sink in until a few days later,” Sally says. “It's overwhelming to think that my name will be there for a long time – forever! I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside so many great people who all made the building a reality and who have dedicated their whole careers to VCU students.”

The entire naming process was shrouded in secrecy, as attendees only knew they were there for “a special presentation.” Once the intent was clear, the crowd erupted in applause.

The Science Hub will now be known as the Dr. Sally Shaffer Hunnicutt Science Hub and the organic chemistry lab in room 507 will now be known as the Dr. Sally Shaffer Hunnicutt and Dr. Mike Hunnicutt Organic Chemistry Teaching Lab.

Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Science kicked off the ceremony by speaking about Sally’s dedication to the sciences, student learning opportunities and VCU.

“Since arriving at this institution, Dr. Hunnicutt recognized the need for innovative pedagogy and tirelessly advocated for transformative learning – she urged faculty to re-conceptualize the teaching of introductory science courses and to prepare students for a future that is collaborative and interdisciplinary – just like the building we’re standing in,” Ingrassia said. “Her role in the conception and development of this new building cannot be overstated. In many ways, you are seeing her vision realized here; she has been instrumental in shaping the design of these new learning environments.”

Sally first joined VCU in 1998 as an assistant professor and assistant chair in the Department of Chemistry. She received the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences Teaching Award in 2012 and the VCU Distinguished Teaching Award in 2014. She has published extensively on chemical education and her research focuses on chemical education and how it relates to the creation, use and impacts of guided inquiry in different classroom environments. Mike joined the faculty in 2011 after a career in industry. During Mike’s time at VCU, he led Project SEED, a program that paired Richmond Public School students with VCU faculty for an immersive summer experience with the Department of Chemistry.

The dean’s remarks were followed by Michal Coffey, director of the VCU Campus Learning Center, which oversees the Science Hub. Coffey recalled the development of the Science Hub, a joint effort between her and Sally.

“To say that Sally has been a tireless advocate for this space is an understatement,” Coffey said.  “We knew we needed a home for this new program, a home that connected with students, making ALL students feel that they have a place and belong in STEM. Dr. Hunnicutt wasn’t advocating for me and my dreams of space, she was advocating for the students and faculty who connect during student hours, she was advocating for additional learning support for STEM students and she was advocating for all the students and faculty we have yet to meet. That is how far her impact goes. Without her, this space, and many of the associated programs, would not exist.”

By the time Mike took the floor, tears had been shed.

“Pride, inspiration and hope. This is Sally. She loves the College of Humanities and Science, she loves VCU students – their diversity, their enthusiasm, hopes and aspirations. Sally is a helper and enabler; she is a servant-leader,” he said.

For many in the audience, the acknowledgement of Sally’s contribution to the VCU community was well deserved.

“Sally's commitment to ‘flipping the script’ on how we teach science from traditional didactic lecture to hands-on problem-based learning has been transformative for VCU students,” said Sarah Golding, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of undergraduate research for the Department of Biology. “Sally meets students where they are, and that is now memorialized by the naming of the Science Hub, a brand new facility in our STEM building aimed at literally bringing faculty to where the students are to support learning in a student-centered approach.”

Watching the new building fill with students this semester has been a joyful experience for the Hunnicutts, and now their names with have a forever home inside.

“The STEM Building is tangible evidence of our collective commitment to our students,” Sally says. “Community and teamwork are built into the design, the bones and the DNA of the building. It literally brings in light and shines it on our students and their instructors and mentors.”

A version of this article was previously published by the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.