2019 Celebration of Excellence in Teaching and Research

Annual awards ceremony honours and highlights the excellence of our exceptional faculty and staff.

News Staff - 07 May 2019

An annual tradition in the Faculty of Science, the Celebration of Excellence in Teaching and Research is a chance to celebrate and recognize our exceptional faculty and staff.

"This is a wonderful way to begin our summer by recognizing some of our teaching and research successes from the past year," said Interim Dean Frank Marsiglio. "The award recipients we are honouring today reflect the incredible talent, exceptional instruction, and outstanding research in our Faculty-but the efforts of everyone in the faculty are important as we work to make our Faculty of Science even more of a leader in teaching and research."

Learn more about this year's award winners, and how they embody the Faculty of Science commitment to engaging students, understanding the past, and shaping the future.

Quick jump to award winners:

Excellent Teaching Award | Graduate Student Mentorship Award | Graduate Student Mentorship Award | Research Award

The Associate Dean of Learning and Innovation Besties for: Biological Sciences | Chemistry | Computing Science | Earth and Atmospheric Sciences | Mathematical and Statistical Sciences | Physics | Psychology

Excellent Teaching - Erik Rosolowsky

The 2019 recipient for the Excellent Teaching Award is Erik Rosolowsky, associate professor in the Department of Physics.

In the words of Rosolowsky's colleague Al Meldrum, professor and Vargo Teaching Chair, "Rosolowsky is the most innovative classroom physics instructor in the department."

Rosolowsky was the first in the department to virtually "flip" his first-year physics classes, with almost two-thirds of class time spent in an interactive learning environment.

He has a proven track record of teaching excellence, recognized not only at UAlberta with multiple awards including the Faculty of Science teaching fellowship, but also at the University of British Columbia with a curricular innovation award. He has also previously researched graduate student training in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics during his post-doctoral fellowship.

An accomplished astrophysicist, Rosolowsky also has an incredible record of public presentations and outreach, including a bi-monthly column in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, focused on fostering public interest in radio astronomy.

Graduate Student Mentorship Award - Colleen Cassady St. Clair

With so many excellent mentors in the Faculty of Science, this year saw the award of not one but two awards in graduate student mentorship. The first 2019 recipient for the Graduate Student Mentorship Award is Colleen Cassady St. Clair, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

In the words of Jocelyn Hall, associate professor and Associate Chair (Undergraduate), one of the features that sets St. Clair apart is her expanded reach, mentoring many other graduate students beyond those in her own lab. In the numerous support letters from current and former students, her warmth and endless enthusiasm for science resonates through students' every word.

Associate Professor Alison Murray, Assistant Associate Chair (graduate), described St. Clair as an exceptional role model, inspiring students to take on leadership roles and sharing her passion for science.

Murray noted that St. Clair has mentored many students in her area of research, but also makes sure students are better able to deal with non-research issues-life skills including job searches, surviving the interview, networking, and more. She has worked with students to increase their comfort in presenting to international audiences, as well as other aspects of their future careers, helping students build their portfolios for future success.

St. Clair's former student Patrick Gilhooly echoed the sentiment, saying "Working with St. Clair has elevated me to new heights that I never knew were possible from within. Her dedication, wisdom, and unique ability as a mentor have strengthened me towards new opportunities and challenges. For that, I am very grateful."

Graduate Student Mentorship Award - Fred Colbourne

The second 2019 recipient for the Graduate Student Mentorship Award is Fred Colbourne, professor in the Department of Psychology.

In the words of Anthony Singhal, Associate Chair (Graduate), Colbourne models excellence and high achievement. He cares about students and their careers, is dedicated to teaching best practices, and is a role model for outstanding scholarly success. Singhal noted that Colbourne is generous with his time and has an established training program that demands much from his students and is geared toward professional development.

One of Colbourne's current Masters students, Cassandra Wilkinson. explained that one of the reasons he is a great mentor is that he holds his student to seemingly impossible high standards-then helps them achieve those standards one step at a time. She added that she has more confidence in her future career prospects because she knows what she has to work on to get where she wants to go-and knows she has a mentor to help get her there.

Lane Liddle, another current masters student under Colbourne, summed up his mentorship by stating that Colbourne's unofficial motto is "never stop improving."

Research Award - Ratmir Derda

This year's recipient of the Faculty of Science Research Award was Ratmir Derda, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry.

In just eight years with the Faculty of Science, Derda has produced 43 publications with more than 1000 literature citations in the field of chemical biology. He has built a high-profile, innovative, and multidisciplinary research program applying modern chemical biology techniques to problems in carbohydrate science and drug discovery.

He is also a promising entrepreneur, co-authoring eight patents at the U of A and successfully translating his genetically encoded technologies to a startup company, 48Hour Discovery, founded in 2017.

Derda has already achieved significant international recognition as of the top young investigators in the large global research field of chemical biology, delivering more than 70 invited seminars in academia, industry, and various national and international conferences in the past five years.

Closer to home, in the past eight years, Derda has worked with nine graduate students and seven postdoctoral fellows and trained more than 25 undergraduate students, many of whom have since pursued PhD studies in top chemistry departments, such as Stanford University, USC, and the University of Toronto. Additionally, he has also supervised 20 Edmonton high school students, initiating and inspiring a next generation of scientists.

Chair Rik Tykwinski and Associate Chair Michael Serpe describe Derda as the archetype of the young renaissance scientists the Department of Chemistry is seeking to recruit: a multitalented, resourceful, and creative scientist whose program is deeply rooted in fundamental science, with an uncanny ability to develop innovative real-life applications and commercialization opportunities, with boundless energy to recruit and train talented mentees.

In their words, "We believe that Derda has just merely begun his meteoric rise as a premier scientist. His ground-breaking research has the potential to truly lead to a better world."

ADLIBs Awards

Last year Elena Nicoladis, then Acting Associate Dean of Learning Innovation, introduced the ADLIBs, the Associate Dean of Learning and Innovation Besties. These awards ask each department to identify an instructor that embodies a particular quote in their teaching. This year's ADLIBs embody the following quote by Albert Einstein:

"Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty."

The second-annual ADLIB honorees are:

Biological Sciences - Andrew Derocher

When Andrew Derocher heads to the lecture hall, his goal is to blend course material with experience. It's almost inevitable that he'll dive into a "bear story" to reinforce a concept. There's no doubt that polar bears have an appeal to students and after 36 years of studying them, there's no shortage of ways to use the bears as a model species; it's also a great means of pulling students back into a lecture, especially on a Monday morning.

Derocher's courses allow students many different ways to succeed. He has exams, but they're not the sole focus. An integrated iterative writing component aimed at reinforcing the scientific process of review followed by revision is key to his desire to foster student interest in scientific inquiry.

For his fourth-year Zoology 408 (Biology of Mammals) course, Derocher does all the marking of term papers. With 3 iterative parts and student-selected topics, it takes a lot of time to critique each paper. Free choice of topic is an important element of the learning process: finding a question is important for students as they refine their own interests in science.

Derocher believes it's critical to make time to meet one-on-one with students to mentor them through the process. He feels that interaction with professors encourages students to do their best. It is clear that students agree-as demonstrated by following comment:

"I asked for his assistance throughout the course and he replied to every single email, met me many times in his office to go over the progress of the paper which made me score 100% on the final draft of the term paper. Once I finished writing the paper, I knew exactly why he made us put such an effort and put so much of his time and energy to make sure that we know how to write a research proposal.

"At one of the appointments, Dr. Derocher was on a phone call with either a news agency or someone from a scientific field. Once I got to his office at the scheduled time, he ended his conference/interview to attend to me. I was amazed that one of the leading scientists in polar bear research prioritizes undergraduate students so much. I heard him telling the individual on the phone that his student was waiting outside and he had to end the phone conference."

While there may be a textbook to provide a course backbone, Derocher uses the latest findings from the peer-reviewed literature as a hook to keep students aware that things are always being discovered and there's always something more to learn. Lectures can move in a diversity of directions depending on the topic. It wouldn't be unusual to hear the sounds of howler monkeys or walrus emanating from his lecture hall.

Using analogies that students can relate to allows Derocher a novel means of bringing scientific principles to everyday life. A bit of Derocher's science-based humour is often on offer to keep lectures dynamic. Learn to expect the unexpected in his class.

Chemistry - Vladimir Michaelis

One of Michaelis' colleagues in the Department of Chemistry, Professor Fred West, noted that Michaelis teaches one of the challenging sections of Introductory Chemistry II-a course for engineers that takes place at 8:00 AM Tuesdays and Thursdays. Hence students really need to want to be there to get up so early.

It is clear the students do not see Michaelis' teaching as a "hard duty" based on their high evaluations on the USRI evaluations, which reflect that the "instructor was enthusiastic." However, Vlad's enthusiasm did not come at the expense of student mastery of the important chemistry concepts, as he also scores highly in the instructor effectiveness category as well. The balance Vlad has achieved between instilling enthusiasm and imparting knowledge is also reflected in the students' comments. Here are a few quotes that capture that essence:

"The professor was very passionate about the subject and about teaching," said one student. "He always made sure we understood what was happening and took extra time if he noticed the class was struggling with a particular concept."

"Dr. Michaelis made the lectures both enjoyable and engaging to the student," said another. "I really appreciated his willingness to address in-class questions as well as his desire to help the students understand concepts one-on-one at his office hours."

A final excerpt from many comments in this vein, a student noted that, "I hope you continue to bring this energy. It brightened the 8:00 AM mood, but also my whole day."

West noted that Michaelis is an upcoming teaching star in the Department of Chemistry and is highly deserving of an ADLIB to recognize his teaching. West explained that teaching can be a gift to many, or that its importance can come from the difference we make to a single student's education, and closed with a final student comment: "Michaelis is the reason I had faith to not drop out of university."

Computing Science - Sadaf Ahmed

Paul Lu, professor and Associate Chair (Undergraduate), described a constant challenge in teaching: the comfort of the familiar. He explained that for some educators, it can be tempting to seek comfort in the familiar, sticking to usual practices rather than putting in the considerable work required to innovate. Sadaf Ahmed, he explained, is one of those that is willing to put in that effort and willing to try new things.

Ahmed has taught in the Department of Computing Science for 16 years. Over the past 6 years she has taken on two different challenges: a transition to a blended-learning classroom in Computing Science (CMPUT) 174, and a transition to a hybrid massive open online course (MOOC) and face-to-face course for CMPUT 174.

Blended learning has many forms, but in CMPUT 174, it takes the form of a video lecture before class and in-class programming. Some would describe that as a flipped classroom. One premise of a flipped classroom is, given that face-to-face time is precious, it should be spent doing activities that benefit the most from having the professor or instructor there to answer questions.

Lu explained that when it comes to learning how to write computer programs, the hard part is learning how to conceptualize, create, and debug the actual program. Videos can cover the factual, technical-specification knowledge of Python programming, typically covered in a lecture.

But, he noted, creating code is best carried out as a mentorship. And Ahmed follows through on that commitment to her students.

"'Oh, please, don't make me do something that experimental,' most professors would say," said Lu. "But Sadaf says 'Let me try.'"

Earth and Atmospheric Sciences - Frederick E. Clark

Frederick E. Clark has been a stalwart member of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences for more than 25 years. As faculty lecturer in the Geology program, he has taught many of the courses in the program many times. He is an effective teacher that embodies the spirit of Einstein's quote-and many comments from students speak to the quality of Fred's teaching:

"Dr. Clark is incredibly efficient and effective at teaching," noted one student. "It was always perfectly clear which information was important, and I always knew exactly what to study-a great professor and a great course."

In addition to many reports of Clark's teaching effectiveness from students, an anecdote was reflected on by Murray Gingras, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

A few years ago, Clark and Gingras co-taught a third-year course on the topic of Petroleum Geology. Gingras said that, to start, no lecture styles had ever clashed more spectacularly. He explained that he is a "fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of teacher" prone to spur of the moment changes in class trajectory, topic of the day, and has even abandoned lessons part way through if they are not working.

Not so with Clark, noted Gingras.

"Clark is strategic, disciplined, focused, and steadfast," said Gingras. "I could add that he is a master of Geology: I am Luke and Fred is Yoda."

"An example of our differences showed early in our course development. We developed an outline for the course that I drafted, and Clark would 'tweak.' His tweaks were an evisceration of the topics I had suggested. The changes reflected Clark's excellent knowledge of the EAS Geology and Environmental Geoscience programs. Why include a review of the petrological aspects of oil reservoirs, when the students should already know this from two of the prerequisites?

"Although I could argue the three Rs of university learning-that review and revision lead to reinforcement-Fred correctly understood that the opportunity to acquire new knowledge exceeded all other student missions on campus. The students could reinforce on their own-it was the time to give them something new to taste. We settled into a set of new and improved topics for the course, and the experience has helped change me from spoon-feeder to chef of knowledge, something Fred had accomplished many years ago."

Mathematical and Statistical Sciences - Terry Gannon and Vladimir Troitsky

This year, the ADLIBs honour teaching inspired by Einstein's quote: "Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty." Offering a valuable gift requires thought, dedication, commitment and creativity. Terry Gannon and Vladimir Troitsky in the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences are great examples of professors who are fully committed to providing the best learning environment for students.

This year in particular, Gannon and Troitsky agreed to take part in an interesting experiment for the benefit of students. The honors programs in the mathematical and statistical sciences program has been nurtured for years, developing into one of the best undergraduate programs in the country.

However, in the process, a lack of communication between the analysis and algebraic branches of our courses became apparent to the instructors, particularly regarding first-year courses. Terry and Vladimir agreed to swap the first-year honors courses this year, so that a researcher in algebra teaches the first-year analysis courses, while a researcher in analysis teaches the first-year algebra courses. The goal was to foster communication and understanding and develop a more unified approach to first-year honors programs.

This experiment required a significant time commitment from both of them. But more importantly, it required creativity, openness, and a willingness to step out of one's comfort zone. Both Gannon and Troitsky enthusiastically agreed to take part in the experiment, and dove into the process headfirst with dedication and conscientiousness-embracing a willingness to welcome change, embrace change, and to explore new possibilities. The two share this vision with contagious enthusiasm, always looking for opportunities to improve.

"Terry and Vladimir are remarkable instructors. Their dedication to the process of learning is impressive," said Vincent Bouchard, associate professor in the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. "Even more interesting is that their teaching approaches are quite different."

Bouchard explained that Troitsky's approach is very conscientious, thorough, and methodical. His classes are well structured, with precision and formality. He is knowledgeable, engaging, and caring. He deeply respects students, gives thoughtful feedback, and is always willing to help.

Meanwhile, Gannon is exceptionally energetic, with unbounded enthusiasm that inspires students. He is passionate, knowledgeable, and excellent at providing deep conceptual explanations that transcend the minute details of technical formalities. He has a big picture approach to mathematics that he successfully conveys to undergraduate students.

But, Bouchard noted, what they both have in common is a very successful pedagogy-that inspires and motivates students to become active and independent learners. There is no one-size-fits-all teaching process: a valuable gift may take many different forms.

Through their remarkable dedication to undergraduate learning at the highest level, Gannon and Troitsky have created their own, personalized version of the most valuable gift that an instructor can give: the passion to learn with contagious enthusiasm and eyes wide open.

Physics - Maya Wheelock

Maya Wheelock is a faculty lecturer in the Department of Physics-teaching more courses every year than any other instructor in the department, noted Mauricio Sacchi, professor and Chair of the department.

Despite this extremely high teaching load, Wheelock consistently receives excellent teaching evaluations and is always willing to try out new and effective teaching innovations such as blended learning approaches.

Sacchi and Wheelock worked together to flip the first-term introductory physics course for engineers, developing online videos to cover some of the material and converting some of the lecture slots to a weekly tutorial session where students can attempt problems online with assistance from TAs and instructors.

Wheelock typically teaches two very large or three medium-to-large sized courses every term-plus an additional course in the spring term. While this volume of teaching takes a considerable amount of effort, Sacchi noted, it is very clear that Wheelock enjoys her teaching, and is always ready to look for new ways to innovate while still finding time to help students-a fact that is clearly reflected in her outstanding student evaluations.

Psychology - Sandra Ziolkowski

Internship Coordinator in the Department of Psychology, Sandra Ziolkowski oversees students in the Science Internship Program in Psychology from both the Faculty of Science and Faculty of Arts.

In addition to her many commitments in the internship program, for the past three years she has co-taught the Science Internship Capstone course, INT D 400. In this capstone course, Ziolkowski teaches a mixed cohort of students-students who come from all seven departments of science who are returning to campus after their work experiences.

Since the course's inception in 2016, she has co-taught, delivered, and refined content for the course, promoting group discussion and fostering an atmosphere of collaboration between the different disciplines.

Ziolkowski has taught a new leadership course this year, and also taken on more teaching to cover the last-minute absence of an instructor within the internship program. This year, and in her ongoing commitment to excellence in teaching, Ziolkowski has gone beyond the call of duty.