TTU Chemistry Professor Receives Presidential Award for Excellence

Nov 19, 2019

Texas Tech chemistry professor Dom Casadonte has gone beyond the classroom with students for more than 30 years. He’s mentored scores of STEM students to help them discover their self-confidence and ready them for careers.

His efforts recently brought him recognition from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation. He along with two other Texans received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

“I see mentoring as a process of relationship with the people that I mentor, and a process of service as well as education. There are so many different aspects of mentoring but fundamentally, to me, mentoring is the process of helping a person become their best and truest self. And so I always try to do that in every interaction I have with people, and especially in the mentoring process.”

Casadonte personally mentored 20 Tech students who applied for, and won, the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship. Since 1995, he has mentored 65 students in undergraduate research.

He established the curriculum for the weeklong summer camp "Science: It's a Girl Thing" in 1995 and 2000 and has served each of the last 20 years as the camp's science adviser, presenting chemistry demonstrations and mentoring the 9- to 11-year-old girls about the world's need for female scientists. Through this work, he has touched the lives of more than 6,000 young women.

Casadonte says he didn’t have mentoring while he pursued his degrees.

“And that’s one of the reasons why I take this very very seriously, in fact I was a first generation student. I remember very distinctly my father dropping me off in front of the dorm and saying ‘well we can’t help you anymore, you know, if you need something from us, maybe some money or something let us know. But otherwise, you’re on your own.’ I think part of good mentoring means being sympathetic to where a person is and where they want to go. I don’t think in many cases you can be as sympathetic with a person and where they are in a point in time if you haven’t been there yourself. So having to figure things out I think really does give me a good degree of empathy with my students.”

Casadonte says the award, which comes with a $10,000 prize, came as a surprise to him.

“And I think it came as a surprise to most of the winners because we really didn’t know until about two weeks before the event. It was a process that for many of us took almost three and a half years, so for example I wrote the first application back in June of 2016 and the next thing I heard was in February 2019 when there was a request for an FBI background check, which sounded pretty serious to me and so it meant they must be moving forward. Then I had a little more information, request for photos in the summer, and then wasn’t until actually early September that we actually knew anything.”

In 1998, Casadonte, who also plays the trombone, joined eight Tech faculty in developing a Master’s program in multi-disciplinary science designed to address content knowledge for K-12 science teachers, many of whom had only completed 1-2 classes in science during their undergraduate career. More than 80 teachers have successfully earned this special graduate degree.   

Often, Casadonte says, students lack belief in themselves and their abilities, especially freshman who might be, like him, the first generation in their families to attend post-secondary institutions.

“A lot of what I do is try to help students develop a sense of their own self-confidence, because once they have a sense that they can do what they need to do then it allows them to do so much more than just that. They can go off and become successful because they understand that they have the capability of doing it. I often find that transition from the scared freshman to the empowered junior or senior here, that just makes my life worthwhile.”

The award was presented to Casadonte last month at a ceremony in the Sidney R. Yates Auditorium in the Department of the Interior.

Casadonte says he looks at his mentees as if they are family.

“I married later in life, but all of the students here at Texas Tech that I’ve been involved with are like my kids, and I try to treat them with the respect that I would have for my own children had I had any.”