Faculty Honored for Teaching, Mentoring at Spring Assembly

Faculty award winners from Spring 2024 Faculty Assembly

During the Spring Faculty Assembly on April 11, Chancellor Daniel Diermeier and Faculty Senate Chair Andrea Capizzi presented awards to 10 faculty members who made a significant impact through scholarship, research, creative expression, service, teaching or mentoring.

Capizzi, associate professor of the practice and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Special Education at Peabody College, welcomed faculty to the assembly and gave a brief update on the work of the Faculty Senate this year.

Then, Diermeier spoke about the challenges facing higher education in general and Vanderbilt specifically. Nodding to the recent student sit-in at Kirkland Hall, as well as a campaign to persuade Vanderbilt to adopt an official definition of antisemitism, he called political pressure from the right and left the greatest threat to the university.

“Conservative voices accuse us of being ‘woke factories,’ while progressives attack us for being inequality machines. And the Israel-Gaza conflict has polarized college campuses to a degree unseen since the 1960s,” he said. “How should universities respond to this challenge? My firm belief is that the best, indeed the only path, is to be clear about our purpose and our values and uphold the principles that support them.”

He pointed to the once-influential University of Berlin (now Humboldt University) as a cautionary tale of how unchecked politicization can damage a university. That institution, he said, was undone first by the Nazis, then by the communist government of East Berlin. Diermeier stressed institutional neutrality as the best defense against politicization.

“When a university takes political stances, it invites lobbying and competitive advocacy by various campus constituencies and turns the university into yet another political battlefield,” he said. “This erodes a university’s unique purpose: the pursuit of knowledge and truth.”

Diermeier thanked the faculty for their “hard work and thoughtful discernment” over these challenging weeks.

“It is often in your classrooms and labs, and in your role as mentors, where theory meets practice, and you are faced with the hard work of putting our principles and values into action as you teach students how to think, not what to think,” he said.


After his address, Diermeier recognized the 28 faculty members who reached the milestone of serving 25 years at Vanderbilt.

Then, he and Capizzi presented this year’s awards.

The Alexander Heard Distinguished Service Professor Award, which recognizes scholarship that contributes to the analysis and solution of significant problems of contemporary society, was presented to Carolyn Heinrich, University Distinguished Professor of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations and Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy, Education, and Economics for her research exploring how schools can support the health and well-being of children and improve education outcomes and her examination of digital learning in K-12 schools, online course-taking in high schools, health and education outcomes of children entangled in immigration enforcement, and more.

The Harvie Branscomb Distinguished Professor Award was presented to Douglas Adams, Daniel F. Flowers Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and professor of mechanical engineering, to recognize his accomplishments that further the aims of the university through creative research, teaching and service. His research on the health of machines—to ensure their safety, reliability and performance—defines the state of the art in advanced manufacturing and national security. His service includes helping secure large awards from external sponsors as associate provost and spearheading the first major curriculum innovation in civil engineering in more than 20 years as chair of the department. And his teaching reflects his efforts to champion innovative solutions, put out fires wherever they occur and foster a positive environment of excellence and collaboration.

The Joe B. Wyatt Distinguished University Professor Award, which recognizes faculty who develop significant knowledge from research or demonstrate exemplary innovations in teaching, was awarded to J.B. Ruhl, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair and Professor in Law, director of the Program on Law and Innovation and co-director of the Energy, Environment and Land Use Program. As a leading voice in environmental law, Ruhl bridges gaps between science, law, governance and policy—spanning disciplines with creativity, curiosity and rigor. A prolific writer, he is published in journals ranging from Science to the University of Colorado Law Review with co-authors ranging from environmental scientists and EPA officials to agricultural scientists and geographers.

The Joseph A. Johnson, Jr., Distinguished Leadership Professor Award went to Walter Clair, professor of medicine and vice chair for diversity and inclusion in the Department of Medicine, for being a member of the faculty who has proactively nurtured an academic environment where everyone feels valued and where diversity is celebrated. Throughout his career, Clair has supported diversity and worked to create access and opportunity in health care—for those seeking medical education and those seeking medical treatment. His individualized approach for making sustainable changes includes education, role modeling, active listening, community engagement and especially mentoring. He mentors medical students as well as young people interested in careers in science or medicine, such as those in the Aspirnaut program at Vanderbilt.

The Ellen Gregg Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching, one of the awards determined by student nominations, was awarded to Peter Kolkay, associate professor of bassoon. The student who nominated him for the award called him a “master teacher” and described him as attentive, constructive and inspiring. Examples of his dedication to students include the notebooks he keeps for each student summarizing their lessons, the special sessions he holds for first-year students and his commitment to perform a duet with each student at the Blair Master Series recital.

The Madison Sarratt Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching went to Katherine Blue Carroll, associate professor of political science and associate director of public policy studies. Carroll directs the undergraduate program in public policy studies and teaches courses such as Terrorism, Political Islam, Middle Eastern Politics and The War in Iraq. Student nominations said that she creates an immersive, informative and unique lecture environment using a variety of sources to give context to political systems and overviews of current research in the field, encouraging students to think critically about the political phenomena in popular media.

This year’s Excellence in Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award was awarded to Carrie Jones, associate professor of pharmacology, for her work understanding schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and addiction and her willingness to support students in her lab. As one student nominator said, “As a freshman, I was unfamiliar with the concept of ‘research,’ but Dr. Jones ensured I felt welcome by regularly checking in and offering her assistance. Under her guidance, I’ve taken ownership of my research projects and experienced significant growth as a student and professional. Her unwavering belief in my abilities and recognition of my efforts have fostered a sense of belonging and validation for me within the STEM community.”

The Excellence in Immersion Mentoring Award recognizes a faculty member who has been an exceptional immersion mentor and was presented to Catherine Chang, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Chang studies the human brain through functional neuroimaging data, and she has provided time-intensive research guidance for five students’ Immersion Vanderbilt projects. A student who nominated her wrote that “Dr. Chang’s mentorship has been instrumental to my academic and personal development. As I gained more knowledge and experience, she encouraged me to propose my own research questions and shape the next steps of my project, equipping me with the skills to develop into an independent thinker and researcher.”

The assembly concluded with two new awards related to developments in teaching and mentoring. First, the Innovation in Teaching: Generative AI Award acknowledges the emergence of generative AI as a driving force in many of Vanderbilt’s classrooms and labs and recognizes a faculty member for excellence and innovation in using generative AI in the classroom. The inaugural Innovation in Teaching: Generative AI Award went to Alex Christensen, assistant professor of psychology and human development. Christensen teaches students how to use generative AI to analyze, interpret and create. He developed an innovative AI tool for students to self-assess and generate their own practice quizzes, teaching them how to use generative AI to help understand what they don’t understand. He introduced new tools for his students and provided a model for successful use of generative AI in the classroom, demonstrating that students need instruction tailored to their background knowledge and support to accommodate learning.

The inaugural Innovation in Teaching: Instruction and Course Design Award recognizes a faculty member who models intellectual risk-taking for their students by using creative approaches in course design or innovative pedagogical practices that advance student-centered learning, foster inclusivity in the classroom, and challenge students to engage with unfamiliar ways of thinking and was presented to Elizabeth Meadows, principal senior lecturer in English. Meadows uses literature and engineering science to help students understand how cities are built, what draws people to cities and why cities foster opportunity and create inequity at the same time. She encourages students to share their own experiences of the cities where they are from to build a teaching community in the classroom that is inclusive, student-centered and welcoming. Students think about the course material in terms of problems they want to solve in the world, setting the stage for them to take their passion and skills to other courses and into the world.