Four Princeton University faculty members received President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies Sunday, May 16.
They are Neta Bahcall, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy and professor of astrophysical sciences; Elizabeth Gavis, professor of molecular biology; James Richardson, professor of creative writing; and Rory Truex, assistant professor of politics and international affairs.
The awards were established in 1990 through a gift by Princeton alumni Lloyd Cotsen of the Class of 1950 and John Sherrerd of the Class of 1952 to recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching by Princeton faculty members. Each winner receives a cash prize of $5,000, and their departments each receive $3,000 for the purchase of new books.
A committee of faculty, academic administrators, undergraduates and graduate students selected the winners from nominations by students, faculty colleagues and alumni.
Bahcall, who has served on the faculty for more than four decades, focuses on observational cosmology, dark matter, dark energy, clusters of galaxies, the mass density of the universe and other topics. She is also director of undergraduate studies for the astrophysical sciences department.
Bahcall is known for her devotion to her students, “who speak of her with a combination of awe at her scientific brilliance, gratitude for her mentorship and encouragement, and inspiration for her role in helping them decide their career paths,” a colleague noted.
An alumnus who is now a professor of astronomy said, “Neta Bahcall stands out in my mind for many things: her scientific acuity, her dedication to her teaching and her compassion for her students. Most of all, though, she has a sparkle in her eye that is infectious.”
Many students have remarked on how inspirational Bahcall has been as a woman scientist at the top of her field. “She has shown me what it means to become a perfect marriage of scientist and woman, and that those two roles together are a powerful combination,” one former student said. “She has a willingness to push her students, but it never overshadows her ability to build their confidence and self-worth.”
Bahcall’s class on cosmology is renowned at Princeton. An alumna who went on to enroll in graduate school in astrophysics said she was awed by Bahcall’s ability to explain complex concepts with clarity, patience and humor. “She would tie together various topics in early cosmology, particle physics and large-scale structure with the grace and fluency that only the most experienced and eloquent teachers possess,” she noted.
Gavis, who has taught at Princeton since 1994, studies cell biology, development and cancer. As director of undergraduate studies, she has spearheaded many transformations in the molecular biology department. She rejuvenated the undergraduate curriculum to tailor it more closely to what young scientists need to know in the 21st century and retooled the “Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology” course to offer students opportunities to address real-life biomedical problems and learn about the lives of the scientists who have made groundbreaking discoveries.
One colleague lauded Gavis’ efforts to include a diverse representation of molecular biologists in her lectures as well as to discuss the challenges in making sure those of all backgrounds are fully included in the field.
A professor who co-taught the introductory course with Gavis noted, “It is challenging to teach students with little or no biology background the core concepts in the field while also providing the excitement of current research. Liz has struck a perfect balance.”
“As a graduate student in the Gavis lab, I was trained to conduct rigorous, impactful basic research. I learned how to think like a scientist,” noted a Ph.D. candidate. “While these skills attest to Liz’s strengths as a mentor, the features that truly set Liz apart include her ability to set a consistent tone in her laboratory, one that is both congenial and professional, where people work to the highest standards, push themselves to work harder and smarter, and still love to come to work every day.”
Another former student expressed his admiration for Gavis’ mentoring. “I attended every single office hours session and developed an intellectual relationship with Professor Gavis that introduced me to the complexities and excitement of clever cells, funky genes and elegant experimental reasoning. These conversations fueled a journey towards a lifetime dedicated to the sciences and human health.”
This year marks Richardson’s 41st as a member of the faculty at Princeton, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1971. He will transfer to emeritus status at the end of this academic year.
One former student recalled entering his “Introductory Poetry” workshop as a “young writer with no shortage of self-doubt, yet Jim treated me as someone whose mind deserved to be taken seriously,” she said. “Jim has the rare skill of knowing how to read his students — really read them, on both intellectual and affective levels — and how to adroitly pitch his feedback and lessons to students of myriad intellectual and social backgrounds.”
Colleagues lauded his pedagogy as well as his accomplishments as an award-winning poet who has published numerous collections of his work.
“As a scholar of poetics, he did a unique service to our students — both graduate and undergraduate — by training them in the ‘how’ of poetry: how meter, rhyme, form, genre, figuration and allusion make a poem go — or not go, as the case may be,” a fellow professor noted. “Jim’s students learn poetry on their pulses — by scansion exercises, by tapping out rhythms, by reading aloud to experience what Jim calls the ‘mouthiness’ of poems.”
An alumna who went on to earn an MFA in poetry recalled Richardson’s guidance as she worked on a collection of poems for her undergraduate thesis at Princeton. “During the year I worked with him, he maintained a delicate balance between proactively steering my thesis project and instilling in me the confidence to steer it myself,” she noted. “There was a magic to his mentorship, too — a balance between criticism and encouragement, rigor and license, that I can appreciate even more in retrospect than I did then.”
Another former student recalled feeling “intellectually exhilarated” after his meetings with Richardson. “Here he was talking to me as a friend — as if I, too, could be that smart, that wise, that thoughtful — and sharing, with a broad smile and ready laugh, my enthusiasm for poetry.”
A faculty member since 2014, Truex studies Chinese politics and theories of authoritarian rule. Students and faculty members have remarked on the extraordinary way Truex connects with students, whether in a lecture class or one-on-one.
“There’s no shortage of students who seek Rory’s advice, help and mentorship,” one colleague in the politics department said. “Oftentimes, there’s a line in front of Rory’s office. He’s always engaged, thoughtful and deliberate in office hours, making himself patiently and attentively available.”
In the classroom, Truex is known for presenting complex material with nuance and clarity, and offering students many ways to discuss and digest the subject matter. “He always helped us to connect personally to the historical and political material he brought into the classroom,” one former student said.
Alumni appreciate the way Truex showed concern for their lives beyond their academic pursuits. He was mindful of students’ “mental health and wellbeing in addition to their academic success,” a former student noted. “As a female student of color, his support was sorely needed to help me envision myself in privileged spaces — both within and outside of the department — that felt inaccessible to me.”
One former student for whom Truex served as academic adviser recalled “the thoughtfulness of his advice and his absolute willingness to support his advisees in taking risks with their research. I do not think I would be as passionate about continuing this research post-graduation were it not for the academic mentorship of Professor Truex.”