Empowering Students: Toni Sauncy Receives Seagondollar Service Award

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Empowering Students: Toni Sauncy Receives Seagondollar Service Award


Kendra Redmond, Editor

At the 2023 Summer Meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers, the SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma Executive Committee recognized Toni Sauncy, a physics professor at Texas Lutheran University, for her exemplary level of commitment and service to the societies, bestowing upon her a Worth Seagondollar Service Award. Sauncy is only the tenth recipient of the award, established in 1996.


Toni Sauncy (right) wears her new Seagondollar medal as she commemorates the occasion with former SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma directors Brad Conrad (left) and Gary White (center). Photo by SPS.

Toni Sauncy doesn’t always follow tradition, but she always makes an impact.

Sauncy started college after high school but dropped out when she had a baby. Seven years later she was back at the same Texas community college, in the same classes she’d flunked when her daughter was born—all because of an insult. She knew she wasn’t stupid and was willing to prove it.

While there, Sauncy was surprised to learn that she’d need another two years of school at a four-year institution to reach her goal of becoming a math teacher. “I had no idea,” she says. But she went for it, driving two hours each way with a classmate so they could finish their math degrees at Texas Tech University.

Her carpool friend decided to minor in physics, so Sauncy did too. “I took the first two physics classes, and I hated every minute of it,” she says. “I cried almost every day; I couldn't understand anything. I spent six weeks trying to figure out what a flywheel was.” But she didn’t have the money or time to switch minors.

In advanced mechanics, Professor Shubhra Gangopadhyay noticed Sauncy’s talent for physics and suggested she consider grad school. “What’s grad school? I don’t even know what that means,” Sauncy recalls saying. But that’s where she found herself a few years later, happily working in Mark Holtz’s lab on a system to image the photoluminescence of semiconductor materials at high pressure and low temperature in a diamond anvil cell. The work was hard but fun, she says.

Sauncy joined SPS and was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma in grad school. She was planning a session on careers in physics for a regional SPS meeting when a mentor, Mary Beth Monroe, suggested that Sauncy ask the SPS National Office for help. She called and Ed Neuenschwander, then SPS director, readily agreed to fly out and give a talk. That's when Sauncy realized that she wanted to be an SPS advisor who empowers others to make things happen, just like Monroe.

After completing a PhD in applied physics, Sauncy became a physics professor and SPS advisor, first at Western Illinois University, then at Angelo State University in Texas. At both schools she rallied the students to start community-building traditions, lead outreach programs, attend meetings, do research, and become leaders.

Sauncy was elected to the SPS National Council while at Angelo State, then as SPS president in 2009. In 2012 she stepped down from her second term as president to become interim director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma.

As director, Sauncy shared her passion for enriching the lives of physics students broadly, developing the SPS Careers Toolbox that helps physics students prepare for the workforce, pulling off a record-breaking Physics Congress in Orlando, Florida, strengthening the SPS internship program, forming new partnerships, mentoring countless students and advisors, and inspiring many with her energy and commitment.

In 2014 Sauncy returned to teaching as physics professor and chair at Texas Lutheran University, where she continues empowering physics students to make things happen in their classrooms, research, and communities. Each year she has been an SPS advisor, no matter when or where, her students have received an Outstanding Chapter Award. 


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