ECU professor receives North Carolina’s highest faculty honor

Sam Sears accepts the O. Max Gardner Award from UNC Board of Governors Chair Peter D. Hans  during an April 12 announcement at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Dr. Samuel F. Sears accepts the O. Max Gardner Award from UNC Board of Governors Chair Peter Hans. Sears will be featured on UNC-TV’s “N.C. Now” airing at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 15.  (Photo by ECU Photographer Jay Clark)

An East Carolina University professor has received the highest faculty honor bestowed by the University of North Carolina for his work to improve quality of life in heart patients.

The UNC Board of Governors named Dr. Samuel F. Sears, director of the doctoral program in health psychology, as the winner of the 2013 O. Max Gardner Award.

The honor pays tribute to one faculty member within the UNC system who, during the current academic year, made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race. Sears accepted the award at the Board of Governors’ monthly meeting at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke on April 12.

After a video on Sears and his work at ECU was shown to the board, UNC Board of Governors Chair Peter Hans called Sears to the podium saying, “You richly deserve this award.”

Sears received a standing ovation from the 150 people in attendance, including his parents, wife and sons, fellow ECU faculty members and Chancellor Steve Ballard.

“I have referred to this award as the academic Heisman for North Carolina,” Sears said. “The recognition…allows me to magnify the challenges of the future. Universities like ours have to respond.”

Sears is the world’s leading expert on the psychological implications for patients living with life-saving heart devices. The implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) can deliver a shock as strong as a mule’s kick when it detects potentially life-threatening heart arrhythmias. Sears works with patients to alleviate fear and anxiety in anticipation of shocks and to improve their overall quality of life.

He serves as a psychologist, patient advocate, researcher, and professor. His goals are to provide the latest information on coping strategies and to prepare tomorrow’s health psychologists to reach more patients.

The O. Max Gardner Award was created through the will of Oliver Max Gardner, the late senator, lieutenant governor and governor of North Carolina. It is the only award for which all faculty members at the 16 university-system institutions are eligible. The 2013 award carries a $20,000 cash prize.

Sears is the eighth ECU professor to earn the O. Max Gardner and only the second psychologist to win since the award’s creation in 1949. Most recently, he joins Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood, Jr., who won in 2004 for cardiothoracic surgery, and Dr. Walter J. Pories, who was named the winner for biochemistry in 2001.

Other past ECU professors awarded the O. Max Gardner Award are William E. Laupus, 1989, medicine; Edgar Loessin, 1986, theater; Stanley R. Riggs, 1983, geology; Francis Speight, 1975, art; and Ovid Williams Pierce, 1973, literature.

A profile of Sears will air Monday, April 15, at 7:30 p.m. on UNC-TV’s “N.C. Now.”