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Jan. 17, 2020

Teacher Scholar Awards

John Aerni-Flessner
Department of History
College of Social Science
Residential College in the Arts and Humanities

John Aerni-Flessner is that rare young scholar whose research commands respect globally, engages community members locally and transforms his students’ perspectives on some of the most challenging issues of our time.

His research focuses on youth, nationalism, development, borders and decolonization in Lesotho, South Africa, but the stories he tells are transnational.

Aerni-Flessner’s book, "Dreams for Lesotho: Independence, Foreign Assistance and Development," explores the post-independence emergence of Lesotho as an example of the uneven ways in which people experienced development at the end of colonialism in Africa.

The book posits that development became the language through which Basotho, the people of Lesotho, conceived of the dream of independence, both before and after the 1966 transfer of power.

It has been praised universally, and a senior African history scholar asserted that it would have “a lasting impact in development studies, African postcolonial history and research on apartheid-era South Africa.”
Aerni-Flessner’s professional stature and global impact are mirrored by the transformative effect he has on his students. He teaches courses on global slavery, decolonization and nationalism in twentieth-century Africa, and Malcolm X in Lansing, by designing learning experiences that focus on critical thinking and writing.

One of the ways he does this is through web-based projects, such as the Lansing Urban Renewal website, which he set up with MSU’s LEADR Lab. The site explores how governmental policies and practices shaped Lansing in the 1960s and invites visitors to consider fundamental issues related to identity and social justice, while also exploring episodes in recent history that continue to inform the present.

Students enrolled in his course generated the content of the website by synthesizing numerous primary sources to write about the era succinctly but cogently while also finding and adding critical historical artifacts, such as documents, photographs and interactive maps to help tell Lansing’s story.

Whether archiving the lives of local leaders or excavating the history of urban renewal and its impact on poor neighborhoods in Lansing, Aerni-Flessner’s students learn to look more closely at the seemingly familiar and to listen more attentively to voices that often go unheeded and unheard.

An empowering teacher and scholar, Aerni-Flessner is an ideal recipient of the Michigan State University Teacher-Scholar Award.

Yadu Pokhrel
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, College of Engineering

Yadu Pokhrel is an internationally renowned researcher in large-scale hydrology and water resource modeling, where he is well known for pioneering work in improving global hydrological models to include water management activities. 

In particular, he is recognized for discovering that groundwater withdrawn from deep aquifers has contributed significantly to global sea level rise.

Researchers worldwide have adopted the global climate models he developed. Pokhrel’s long-term goal is to provide a better understanding of the growing interconnectedness between societies, freshwater systems and global change towards addressing pressing societal problems related to the security of water, energy and food systems holistically.

In 2018, he received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award to advance research and education on water resource sustainability in human-managed landscapes.

Pokhrel has established himself as an outstanding educator. He has taught a series of high-enrollment undergraduate courses that include significant laboratory components through which he has deployed a variety of active learning strategies in the classroom to create an environment where students want to learn, explore, experiment and create new knowledge.

He helps students identify and solve real-world problems using an inquiry-driven approach, emphasizing concepts over facts and challenging students to work in teams to solve real-world problems.

Pokhrel has developed new graduate courses that emphasize hands-on activities, such as writing model codes and formulating and testing hypotheses towards fostering the habit of thinking through a problem, organizing and executing a task and articulating a problem and solution in writing.

Pokhrel is an excellent mentor, striking a balance between challenging students to pursue their professional goals while also providing them with opportunities to be creative and independent.

His Multi-Scale Hydrological Modeling group currently hosts one postdoc, four doctoral students, one master’s student and two undergraduate assistants, all actively learning in his lab while contributing to pioneering research. He has graduated one doctoral and three master’s students over the past four years.

For his exemplary record as a researcher, teacher and mentor, Yadu Pokhrel is most deserving of the Michigan State University Teacher-Scholar Award. 

Erin Purcell
Departments of Biomedical Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering
College of Engineering

Erin Purcell is a recognized scholar in neural engineering and an innovative
teacher, who effectively transfers knowledge gained through her research to both her undergraduate and graduate students.

Purcell’s pioneering research has elucidated interactions between brain cells and implanted electrodes and informed strategies to use neural probes for neurological diseases and injuries.

Her research program synergistically integrates recent advances in electrophysiology, imaging and molecular biology to explain how implanted electrodes affect neural circuitry.

She has received three NIH grants totaling more than $2.5 million as lead principal investigator and is a co-investigator on another NIH grant using brain-cell gene-expression profiles to understand the genetic basis of brain inflammation. Knowledge gained from these studies will facilitate the development of next-generation neural electrode arrays with improved biocompatibility and useful lifetimes.

Purcell has been an educational pioneer and innovator in MSU’s new Biomedical Engineering Department. One of her central career goals is to bridge the gap between the engineering and life science disciplines. She has developed new, cross-disciplinary courses to which students with backgrounds in both biomedical engineering and biology are recruited and trained to collaborate in solving problems in medicine. Major team projects require students to integrate engineering and life science concepts, resulting in interdisciplinary learning and experience.

These courses have consistently received enthusiastic student evaluations; one undergraduate student wrote, “[Neural engineering is] one of the most interesting interdisciplinary classes you can take at MSU. Dr. Purcell will make a difference to any student who takes her class.”

Purcell actively engages in all phases of her students’ research-related experiences, from collecting data to publishing results to planning a career path. Her ongoing service activities focus on improving student training and improving outreach opportunities for women in engineering. She serves as chairperson of the graduate studies committees in both the biomedical engineering department and the college.

For her commitment to neural-engineering-focused research, teaching, mentoring and service, Erin Purcell is a most deserving recipient of the Michigan State University Teacher-Scholar Award. 

Michaela TerAvest
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, College of Natural Science

Michaela TerAvest is a prolific scholar, who brings an extraordinary level of excitement and enthusiasm for basic science and education to MSU.

Intrigued by biological and physiological mechanisms and their potential to be useful in sustainable biotechnologies, the driving goal of her career is to develop biotechnologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide sustainable sources of energy.

TerAvest’s current research focuses on gaining a deep understanding of the diversity of respiratory electron transport chains both within and among species.

She is especially interested in utilizing electron transport chains that incorporate extracellular electron transfer modules to connect bacterial metabolism to electrodes because doing so would enable electronic control of bacterial metabolism.

TerAvest aims to discover the mechanisms that allow bacteria to harvest energy from a wide range of electron donors and acceptors, and to learn how to exploit these mechanisms to optimize energy and cofactor production, which would allow her to create better bacterial chassis strains for fuel and chemical production.

TerAvest has proven to be an outstanding model for the modern teacher-scholar. She is an enthusiastic instructor, who uses evidence-based practices, including clickers and group activities, to engage her students.

She painstakingly develops learning objectives for each of her classes that explicitly outline what students should be learning from course material before class, what they should be learning during class and what they should be integrating and learning as they study after class.

Further, as one instructor among many in a multisection introductory biology class, TerAvest makes a point to collaborate with the course’s other instructors, ensuring that each section covers the same material and adheres to similar standards. Several of her fellow instructors have expressed appreciation for the ways in which TerAvest brought them all together as a teaching team.

An outstanding researcher, wonderful colleague and exceptionally gifted teacher, who is inspiring students to embrace science, Michaela TerAvest is a most deserving recipient of the Michigan State University Teacher-Scholar Award. 

Kjerstin Thorson
Department of Advertising and Public Relations, College of Communication Arts and Sciences

By any measure, Kjerstin Thorson is a star, who perceives the roles of teacher and scholar as seamless. Upon her appointment at MSU, she took on challenging teaching assignments almost immediately and developed an extremely successful suite of digital analytics courses.

While she is a challenging instructor, her students recognize her excellence. As one student noted, “My absolute favorite class ever — and favorite professor at MSU. I gained an amazing amount of knowledge and loved every second of it. I have now looked into digital analytics as a career. I am beyond thankful for Professor Thorson and the way she organized this course!”

Another student stated, “I thoroughly enjoyed the class from start to finish, from lecture to recitation, it was done very well, and I am saddened it’s ending.”

Thorson skillfully brings the real world to the classroom by having student teams work with small nonprofits as clients. These teams assist in analyzing the nonprofits’ digital footprint and then creating data stories for these organizations. These stories aid the client in improving its online effectiveness.

Another innovation she has introduced to her classes is Data Day, which brings digital analytics’ professionals to campus to network with students and to introduce them to career paths.

Thorson is a prolific researcher with international recognition, including a recent invitation to present at the prestigious Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford.

Her current research projects are investigating inequalities in the use of digital media for political purposes and the role of digital platforms and algorithms in reinforcing these inequalities.

One of her most creative and effective research projects was MSU Votes, an interdisciplinary collaboration with communication and political science faculty. They investigated obstacles to student voting and then created messages designed to motivate MSU students to vote. These interventions notably increased MSU student voter turnout.

For her demonstrated commitment to teaching and partnering with industry to create unique learning opportunities for students and research work that receives international recognition, Kjerstin Thorson is an exceptionally deserving recipient of the Michigan State University Teacher-Scholar Award. 

Courtney Venker
Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, College of Communication Arts and Sciences

Courtney Venker has established herself as an exceptional teacher, highly engaged mentor and outstanding scholar.

The recipient of an Early Career Research Award from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health, Venker’s current research focuses on language development in children with autism spectrum disorder, with an emphasis on how these children integrate auditory and visual information to learn the meanings of words.

Venker has been a pioneer in using eye tracking to understand language acquisition in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. A recent tutorial she published on the subject will have lasting impact on how future research is conducted. 

Equally important is a novel theory, called auditory-visual misalignment, which she and her colleagues proposed to explain why language delays occur in children with autism.

This groundbreaking work integrates findings across multiple labs studying language and attention. The work is insightful, pushing the field toward a deeper understanding of communication challenges in children with autism.

Venker has a deep commitment to the undergraduate and graduate students that she teaches and mentors. In her courses for master’s students, she combines her scholarly expertise with innovative teaching practices that motivate students to excel.

Her stated goal for master’s students is that they develop the strong critical thinking skills needed by speech-language pathologists engaging with children with language disorders. As a certified speech-language pathologist herself, Venker appreciates the challenging clinical situations that her students will face and integrates her scholarly expertise with the practical needs of the clinical environment.

An accomplished researcher and teacher whose work will positively affect the lives of children with autism by shaping the clinical practice of speech-language pathologists, Courtney Venker amplifies her positive impact even further by training students who will become therapists that serve these children.

For her commitment to children with autism through research and in training those who will serve them, Courtney Venker is most deserving of the Michigan State University Teacher-Scholar Award.

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