An inspiring teacher and mentor, Kate Heelan receives UNK’s Distinguished Faculty Award

UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen presents the Leland Holdt/Security Mutual Life Distinguished Faculty Award to exercise science professor Kate Heelan during Friday’s winter commencement ceremony at the Health and Sports Center.
UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen presents the Leland Holdt/Security Mutual Life Distinguished Faculty Award to exercise science professor Kate Heelan during Friday’s winter commencement ceremony at the Health and Sports Center.

KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney exercise science professor Kate Heelan was honored Friday with the Leland Holdt/Security Mutual Life Distinguished Faculty Award.

Presented each year during winter commencement, UNK’s most prestigious faculty award recognizes an outstanding teacher-scholar for their achievements in education, research and service. The award, which also honors UNK alumnus Leland Holdt and commemorates his many years of leadership at Security Mutual Life, comes with a $5,000 stipend.

Heelan joined the UNK faculty in 2001 and currently serves as a professor and assistant chair in the department of kinesiology and sport sciences, as well as coordinator of the exercise science program and director of the Physical Activity and Wellness Lab.

During Friday’s award presentation, Chancellor Doug Kristensen called Heelan an “inspiring teacher and mentor, outstanding scholar and supportive colleague” who sets high expectations and prepares students for future success.

Fellow UNK exercise science professor Greg Brown, who nominated Heelan for the award, echoed the chancellor’s sentiment.

“One particularly exceptional aspect of Dr. Heelan’s performance as a faculty member is that her teaching, scholarship and service are seamlessly interwoven to provide the students at UNK an unparalleled learning experience,” he wrote in the nomination letter.

Heelan’s students have countless opportunities to participate in experiential learning, whether they’re working in the Physical Activity and Wellness Lab, conducting undergraduate and graduate research or assisting with community projects.

A very visible example of this hands-on approach is Nebraska Kids Fitness and Nutrition Day, an annual event organized by Heelan that brings approximately 800 area fourth graders to the UNK campus to learn about the importance of physical activity and proper nutrition. More than 100 UNK students are involved in the project each year.

Heelan also coordinates Building Healthy Families, a free program designed for families with children ages 6-12 that works with participants to identify better food choices, modify unhealthy behaviors and increase physical activity.

Shelby Watson, a 2014 UNK graduate, was able to assist with this program and conduct research she presented at an international conference under Heelan’s mentorship.

“She encouraged and pushed me to expand and grow, not because she expected it, but because she knew there was more potential to be shared,” Watson wrote in support of Heelan’s nomination for the faculty award.

Watson called these outside-the-classroom experiences “life-altering.”

Kate Heelan
Kate Heelan

“There are moments in my life when I am now able to brag about the opportunities students have at UNK and within the Kearney community because of the work that Dr. Heelan has done and continues to do,” she wrote.

As a researcher, Heelan has been the principal investigator or co-investigator on grant proposals that have been funded for approximately $4 million. This includes $2.5 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand Building Healthy Families by creating a turnkey version of the program that can be implemented in rural communities across the region.

Heelan has authored or co-authored more than 40 peer-reviewed publications and over 90 peer-reviewed presentations, many of which included contributions from her students.

“The number of international and national research-based articles published in top-tier research journals is indicative of a professional of the highest caliber and, when paired with her grant production, is truly remarkable,” former UNK College of Education Dean Ed Scantling stated in his letter of support.

Heelan also played an instrumental role in the effort to secure funding for UNK’s Wellness Center and Physical Activity and Wellness Lab, a $6.5 million facility that opened in 2014.

In the community, she’s served as a grant evaluator for Kearney Public Schools and as a member of the district’s school wellness policy development team. She’s been on numerous statewide committees that promote enhanced health and wellness in Nebraska.

“Trying to describe the many ways in which Dr. Heelan has demonstrated unparalleled excellence in the area of service within a single paragraph or a brief letter of nomination is kind of like trying to name the 206 bones of the human body in 50 words or less,” Brown stated.

Heelan has been recognized as a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and she was selected as a Health Education Professional of the Year by SHAPE Nebraska. She’s received the Healthy Community Advocacy Award from CHI Health Good Samaritan, as well as UNK’s Pratt-Heins Award for Scholarship and Research and Faculty Mentor Award, among other honors.