Four graduate students received the honor of being recognized for their teaching skills at the University Award Ceremony on April 29. David Abel (Computer Science), Kimberly Lewis (Anthropology), John Santiago (Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry) and Abner Santos (Portuguese and Brazilian Studies) all received incredible recommendations from faculty and former students.
The Presidential Excellence in Teaching Award was created to recognize graduate students who exemplify exceptional teaching as a component of graduate education and to recognize the significant contributions of graduate student instructors and teaching assistants to the education of Brown's undergraduate community.
Abel noted that the course he most enjoyed teaching was CS8: A First Byte of Computer Science. "Students get a taste of some of the core tools of CS like programming and logic, but also get a glimpse into the foundations and applications of the field through topics like cryptography, machine learning, and the theory of computation. Teaching CS8 gave me the chance to share the beautiful and world changing ideas at the heart of CS to students from a variety of disciplines."
A former student shares in his nomination, "In more ways than I could imagine, Dave Abel has made an impact on the person that I am today. Through Dave’s instructions, I was motivated to think beyond the confines of solely the classroom. The way that Dave instructed class was mesmerizing, and I found myself truly excited to come to lectures and office hours.”
In additional to teaching, Dave is committed to contributing to mentoring at Brown. Abel, along with two other PhD students, was heavily involved in designing and running a peer mentoring program in the Computer Science department where first-year PhD students are paired up with more advanced students. Abel and others coordinate with the department to ensure the mentors have the proper training and resources they need, and organize gatherings such as pot luck dinners, lunches and coffee.
The goal is for new PhD students to have a senior student to help guide them in all matters related to doctoral student life, such as finding research projects, working with their advisor and establishing a work-life balance. The program has been a huge success and plans are being made to institutionalize it so that future students will continue to benefit.
David Laidlaw, Director of Graduate Studies and Professor of Computer Science also noted Abel’s work as the departmental Faculty-Graduate Liaison (FGL). In this role, he organized a number of activities to strengthen the department’s sense of community and speaking for the graduate student body on issues of hiring, office space, mentoring, and courses.
“Specifically relevant for this award, he was instrumental in launching a mentoring program to help less senior Ph.D. students successfully begin our program. It has been extremely well received by the students," says Laidlaw, Director of Graduate Studies and Professor of Computer Science.
Kim Lewis has excelled both in research and teaching during her time at Brown. She recently defended her doctoral dissertation, Innovation and Exclusion: Redesigning Higher Education in Ecuador, in the Department of Anthropology. During her time at Brown, she was the recipient of multiple awards and fellowships, including a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the Whiteford Graduate Student Award in Applied and Public Anthropology given by the Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Prior to graduate school, she earned a Fulbright award and spent two years teaching English in Ecuador.
Lewis is fluent in Spanish and follows a deeply ethical approach to her research, characterized by engaging with Ecuadorian academics as colleagues and elevating their work, to a degree unusual in the social sciences.
Lewis has honed her communication skills through seven years of working at the Writing Center. She offers students advice on how to present clear and effective arguments. "I have enjoyed the one-on-one teaching I have done at the Writing Center, because I like helping students embrace their voices and communicate their ideas in a non-evaluative setting," says Lewis.
A student notes that one of the most valuable practices that Lewis initiated was inclusive office hours. Her goal was to open spaces of dialogue with students to demystify any hidden curriculum of college and try to level the playing field for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. She held office hours in the U-Fli Center and Writing Center and created easy ways for students to sign up or drop in.
She was additionally praised by a former student, "from day one, Ms. Lewis was always respectful of our different backgrounds, from being inclusive to different pronouns to ensuring everyone had equal access to resources. That is not an easy environment to create, and I credit Ms. Lewis greatly for helping to facilitate a diverse and encouraging classroom space."
As noted by Rebecca Louise Carter, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies, "I found her teaching design and methods impressive – from the mini-lessons she developed, to the seminar-style discussions she led, to the specific workshop activities she designed for her students to gain hands-on experience."
John Santiago has been an important member of Brown’s Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD) since he started his PhD.
Working with Dean of the College and others, Santiago took the lead in implementing an interactive web component for the IMSD scientific writing module, while also covering his other Senior Scholar duties of facilitating small group discussions, answering student questions, keeping track of assignments and providing snacks. As one instructor noted, "He came up with creative ways to enhance student participation and learning, both via the new online portal and in the small group interactions.”
The following year, John continued to participate in refining and improving the module. In the end, the students were writing and editing manuscripts together through an online system, and assessing each other's fellowship aims.
Recognizing the importance of this critical skill for research scientists, he organized a writing group for graduate students. Santiago felt that students may need additional support when they are immersed in writing and his groups have helped to fill this gap.
"We are nominating John for this award because he selflessly tutors and encourages his fellow graduate students both formally, via program-based opportunities, and informally. He is an excellent, thoughtful and effective teaching assistant,” says Mark Johnson, Associate Professor of Biology, graduate director of the Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry program.
In addition to his role with IMSD and research, he started the Brown Junior Researchers program, which provides science enrichment for first through fifth graders at Agnes B. Hennessey Elementary School in East Providence. The program has been incredibly successful, with numerous Brown graduate students who volunteer each session.
"I find that the most rewarding aspect of teaching, the part that drives me, is the opportunity to potentially help others achieve more," says Santiago.
“Among the many qualities that distinguish Abner Santos as a teacher are his commitment to his students, his professionalism, and his ability to both design an effective course curriculum and to design innovative class activities,” says nominator Leonor Simas-Almeida, Director of Graduate Studies and Distinguished Senior Lecturer in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies. He integrates format variety, be it a reading, a video or a song, to address various learning styles and to make the class more engaging. He relates historical texts to the current sociopolitical climate in Brazil.
A former student notes, "Throughout the course, Professor Santos went above and beyond to motivate everyone in the class to not only delve deeply into the materials discussed in the course, but also additionally provided comprehensive historical background on what was shaping the material presented in class. He always thought of imaginative new ways to make the class more relatable and engaging, including linking many of the historical texts read in the class to the current sociopolitical climate in Brazil."
Santos says the course he most enjoyed teaching was Mapping Portuguese-Speaking Cultures - Brazil. “I had to do a 500-year review of history, culture and literature in what was a foreign language for my students. Because I taught this course by myself I was able to see better the entire arch of the discipline, how subjects can be tied together, and what were the processes through which students were making connections of their own and reaching more sophisticated conclusions over time,” he says.
His students commented that he was always available for additional office hours to continue any class discussion, bounce ideas for papers/projects, and even to discuss aspects of Brazilian culture or texts not covered in the original syllabus.
"His work with students in our Writing Club is also exemplary,” said Adjunct Lecturer in Portuguese & Brazilian Studies, Naomi Parker. "He provides students with precise explanations of grammar and usage, helps students recognize patterns in their writing, and offers clear, exceptionally useful suggestions for improvement."