Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research

Excellence in Teaching Award

Martha Ann Bell, Department of Psychology

December 2017

Martha Ann Bell, professor in the Department of Psychology, is the winner of the December Excellence in Teaching Award. This award, given by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, recognizes effective, engaged, and dynamic educators at Virginia Tech.

At Tech since 1996, Bell is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist whose research focuses on frontal lobe development in infants and children. She focuses on the intersections between cognition and emotion function in infancy and early childhood. Through her research she has mentored 19 master’s and Ph.D. students and numerous undergraduates in her lab.

Bell didn’t follow the traditional path to academia. She was the first in her family to go to college and initially studied to be a home economics teacher. “From as far back as I can remember, I would hear ‘when’ you go to college. There was no ‘if’ in that phrase,” she said. “Being a teacher seemed like a great aspiration. I loved school, so being a teacher and being able to work in a setting that I loved seemed fabulous to me.”

Attending college just 20 minutes from her hometown in Tennessee, Bell was inspired by a female faculty member who made teaching young adults seem like the best job in the world, and she fell in love with her child development courses. After undergraduate, she spent five years working as a high school teacher before continuing to graduate school. “I remain convinced that the reason I am an excellent teacher today is because of my teacher training in college and my in-the-trenches experience teaching high school classes,” she said.

Bell completed a master’s degree during summer months between school years. Upon moving to Maryland for her husband’s job, she enrolled in a doctoral program in 1984 as the result of a TIME magazine cover. “The cover had a close up of an infant’s face and the cover was ‘Babies: What do they know? How do they know it?’,” she said. “After eagerly devouring that magazine article, which focused on infant research at various universities, I decided that I wanted to learn what infants know.

“That TIMEmagazine is in my office to this day,” she continued. “I need to get it framed.”

Bell said allowing her students to know she was a non-traditional graduate student and then a new assistant professor who had been married for 17 years raising a preschooler and a 5th grader benefitted her students. “I brought a sense of self and a priority on family that my students have embraced,” she said. “I am a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in my research lab, as well as the greater scientific community.”

Bell’s love of teaching is evident in the way she works to ensure all students have an engaging experience in the classroom. “My typical class integrates lecture, storytelling examples, questioning of the students, and occasional videos in to the day’s session,” she said. “Of course, not all teaching occurs in the classroom; thus, teaching in the research lab is part of my teaching philosophy.

“Providing research experiences for undergraduate students is critical for their education in developmental cognitive neuroscience,” she continued. Many of Bell’s undergraduate students have gone on to doctoral research programs, and/or presented research at the annual Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Symposium. Three of her undergraduate mentees have earned research awards from the Department of Psychology at graduation, and two have won the Outstanding Senior award.

Tashauna Blankenship, a newly-minted PhD and current post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Systems Neuroscience at Boston University, said Bell’s mentorship at all levels of her academic career proved invaluable.

“Her cheerful and friendly personality generates a positive lab atmosphere, which promotes productivity and collaboration among her students,” Blankenship said. “Beyond developing my research skills, (Bell) has given me an excellent template for how to mentor graduate and undergraduate students in a kind, thoughtful, and productive manner.”