Texas Tech University

Decision to Enter Academia Benefits Law Professor, Students

George Watson

July 14, 2021

Brie Sherwin is the recipient of the Spencer A. Wells Award for Creativity in Teaching from the Texas Tech Parents Association.

In March, the Texas Tech Parents Association announced the recipients of its 2021 faculty awards. We are highlighting the seven Texas Tech University faculty members who were recognized.

Brie Sherwin

When Brie Sherwin decided to make the leap from a successful law practice to academia, she focused on environmental law, earning her doctorate in environmental toxicology and focusing her research on such areas as environmental impacts of contaminants and pollution on all species.

Most recently, she has been examining one of the darkest eras in human history in the Salem Witch Trials and how fear and misunderstanding led to the persecution of so many women. It is yet another area where her two interests of law and science have connected.

Since joining the Texas Tech School of Law in 2008, the Lubbock native, who grew up in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and was one of the first law students at Texas Tech to earn a jurisdoctorate and master's degree in environmental toxicology, has become one of the leading educators at Texas Tech.

Sherwin not only conducts research at the intersection of law and science, she ensures her students have the tools necessary to succeed once they leave law school and begin practicing on their own. Her teaching methods are not limited to the classroom as she serves as an adviser for the law school's award-winning arbitration teams as well. She also teaches environmental health in the Department of Public Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

Her dedication to teaching is the reason the Texas Tech Parents Association chose Sherwin as the recipient of its 2021 Spencer A. Wells Award for Creativity in Teaching.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?

My research has always touched on issues in law and science. Specifically, my early scientific research focused on the effects of contaminants and habitat modification on endangered species. More recently, my legal research has covered the environmental impacts of pollution on underserved and economically disadvantaged communities. I have written about the impact of coal ash waste on surrounding communities; the Flint, Michigan water crisis and the importance of environmental sustainability in urban development. I believe my legal research has helped shed light on the disparities in how communities are treated when an environmental disaster or problem occurs and the impact of city zoning on urban communities when it comes to future development. Lastly, my 2019 law review article, “After the Storm: The Importance of Acknowledging Environmental Justice in Sustainable Development and Disaster Preparedness,” which was previously published in the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Forum, will soon be re-published in ‘The Cambridge Handbook of Disaster Law: Risk, Recovery, and Redevelopment.” 

What projects are you working on at this time?

Currently, I am researching the Salem Witch Trials and what we can learn from social constructs as well as the trials. The Salem Witch Trials used “spectral evidence” to convict many innocent individuals. The persecution of so many people was based on fear and misunderstanding. I'm really excited about this research because it is based on my work with the Salem Witch Museum and an analysis of its survey data, collected over the past several years, which asks its visitors to identify “witch hunts” throughout history and fill in the blank of the following formula: Fear + Trigger = Scapegoat.  I hope to turn this work into a law review article, which will explore how social perceptions of women and minority populations have influenced policing, criminal trials and the recent developments in criminal justice reform.

What areas are you interested in for future research?

I hope to continue with my research into the Salem Witch Trials for at least a few more years. After that, I'm sure I'll stay in the arena of law and science, which has always been my passion.

What rewards do you get from teaching?

One of the biggest rewards I get is seeing one of my students, who is struggling in law school, start to succeed and get on track. Honestly, the difference I see in a student's self-confidence and ability to believe in themselves is the greatest reward ever. I get to see this both in my classroom and when I coach our national arbitration teams. It also happens when I run into a former student or get that occasional email from an alumnus, thanking me for believing in them or thanking me for that “one thing” I taught them that helped them succeed in the practice of law. To me, it doesn't get any better than that.

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?

I was motivated when I saw my husband transition from the practice of law into academia. The pure joy he got from teaching made me wonder if I could do the same thing. Of course, I did, and the rest is history.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?

I seriously couldn't imagine a more supportive environment, both at the law school and campuswide. The Teaching Academy, as well as the Texas Tech Teaching, Learning and Professional Development Center, have provided such a wonderful structure for learning how to be a better teacher. The Women Faculty Writing Program also was instrumental in helping me succeed in my scholarship early on in my career. Additionally, the university has so many wonderful programs and awards faculty can apply for, both in teaching and in research. In 2018, I won the Chancellor's Excellence in Teaching Award. Then, in 2019, I was awarded the President's Excellence in Research Professorship. These awards really have supported me in my endeavor to be a better teacher and scholar. I couldn't do it without the support of my dean and my colleagues at the law school who have nominated me for these awards and encouraged me.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?

Without question, it has been my husband, Rob Sherwin, who also happens to be a professor and the director of advocacy at the law school. He has supported and encouraged me every step of the way, whether it was taking over “dinner duty” when I decided to go back and get my doctorate in environmental toxicology while teaching law school full time, or his daily praise, telling me “You're the best teacher I know.” He is my constant source of support, and he inspires me in his interaction with his own students, too.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Just that I am incredibly grateful to Texas Tech University and to the Texas Tech Parents Association for their support and encouragement. I always tell people we have the best students at Texas Tech, and I have the best job in the world, teaching them.