Walter Smith, assistant professor of biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, has taught at the college since receiving his Ph.D. in 2012. He directs a regionally focused research program that aims to understand how ongoing socioeconomic changes in central Appalachia impact biodiversity conservation, particularly for rare and understudied amphibians.
His work routinely places him and students in the field and has been supported by more than $2 million in external funding. Dr. Smith blurs the lines that traditionally separate undergraduate instruction, community engagement, and scholarly research, involving undergraduate students in every phase of projects in his laboratory. He has mentored 27 students since his arrival at UVA-Wise, with these students publishing peer-reviewed articles and presenting their work at regional and national conferences.
He teaches courses in ecology, evolutionary biology and biodiversity conservation. He is especially known for integrating research and service into his courses, involving both applied projects and initiatives on campus and in local communities. His work in this area has led to projects enhancing habitat protection for rare amphibian species and transforming the UVA-Wise campus ― 75% of which has been surface-mined for coal ― into a living laboratory for mined-land reclamation studies. His teaching strategy places students in leadership roles in the classroom, allowing them to become directly involved in the scientific process and harness their own intellectual creativity.
Smith also has played a formative role in community-based efforts across the Appalachian region. He serves as a steering committee or board member for multiple community organizations including the Clinch River Valley Initiative, an effort to link economic development with biodiversity conservation in rural southwest Virginia. As chair of this group's environmental-education efforts, he has helped organize an annual symposium that provides advanced training in STEM instruction for hundreds of rural educators, has enhanced the economic development strategies of multiple coalfield communities, and is helping oversee the development of an ecological center for students, researchers and the community at a $1 million facility along the Clinch River.
His work has won multiple awards both at UVA-Wise and with regional organizations including awards for teaching excellence and the UVA-Wise Faculty Rising Star Award. He plans to continue to teach and has stated that he has found a home in southwestern Virginia.