Mish and Lai win initial graduate, professional teaching prize

Risa Mish ’85, J.D. ’88, professor of the practice of management in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, and Dong Lai, M.S. ’91, Ph.D. ’94, professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences, have each won Cornell’s inaugural Provost Award for Teaching Excellence in Graduate and Professional Degree Programs.

Professor Mish and Professor Lai’s commitment to teaching and mentorship make them both the ideal inaugural winners of this award,” said Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff. “Both are truly outstanding. Their attention, warmth and attitude toward to their students – and their students’ educational endeavors and success – stands out.”

Risa Mish

Dong Lai

The new award was created to recognize excellence in teaching among faculty who teach primarily at the professional school and/or graduate program level, analogous to the Stephen H. Weiss Teaching Awards, which recognize excellence in undergraduate education. As part of the prize, Lai and Mish will both receive a $7,000 annual stipend for three years, which may be used for any university-related purpose.

For Lai, the selection committee was enthused about his contributions to the graduate field of astronomy, particularly his teaching methods, mentoring and “the amazing record of placement of your Ph.D. students,” Kotlikoff wrote in a letter to Lai.

“I feel very fortunate that here at Cornell we have very talented faculty and students,” Lai said. “The students are curious, eager and dedicated. It is quite a privilege working with them. It’s quite wonderful. They inspire and motivate me.”

Overall, Lai has advised 15 doctoral students and co-advised three additional doctoral students over the last two decades. He currently guides four doctoral students. In the last five years Lai has developed a new graduate-level class in fluid dynamics for astrophysical applications, and he has overhauled two core graduate-level classes – astrophysical processes and astrophysical dynamics – to update the department curriculum.

“Rather than slogging through long derivations, Dong will pose insightful questions and allow graduate students to progress toward goals – not blind alleys – that result in fruitful outcomes,” said David Chernoff, professor of astronomy in A&S, who led the Department of Astronomy’s nomination effort.

“Dong’s energy was infectious,” one alum wrote in a letter of support. “[He is an] excellent lecturer, both inside and outside of the classroom … Dong has spent a great deal of his energy to ensure the professional and scientific success of his students.”

With an eye toward the future for studying the cosmos, “Dong’s extraordinary record of teaching and advising exemplify the department’s commitment to mentoring the next generation of leaders in astronomy,” said Jonathan Lunine, chair, Department of Astronomy in A&S.

Lai earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Science and Technology of China in 1988, and his master’s degree in physics in 1991 and doctorate in theoretical physics, both from Cornell, as an advisee under the late Ed Saltpeter.

Lai did postgraduate research at the California Institute of Technology and joined Cornell’s astronomy department in 1997. He is a member of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute.

As for Mish, Kotlikoff’s award letter said the selection committee enjoyed learning about “your classroom performance and your impact on students’ lives as leaders and as people.”

Upon learning that she had won the award, Mish was appreciative. “I was honestly overwhelmed with gratitude for the many blessings of this job – wonderful students and colleagues, from whom I’ve learned so much,” she said.

Mish was grateful for the “supportive leadership and a university – my alma mater – that genuinely values teaching and advising,” she said. “Johnson and Cornell are special communities of which to be a part and it’s a privilege that I feel every day.”

Leading the Johnson School’s nomination of Mish, Drew Pascarella, associate dean for MBA programs, said that her critical and strategic thinking courses are now required core curricula in the two-year MBA, one-year MBA, Johnson Cornell Tech MBA and Cornell-Tsinghua Finance MBA.

In a modified Socratic way, Mish shows students a systematic process for solving complex business problems, from evaluating the issues and conditions, to determining root causes and other factors inducing challenges, and then on to weighing potential solution options.

“My life changed when I took her Critical Thinking for Business Leaders course during my first year,” one alum told the selection committee. “I was in awe at her ability to mesmerize us using her ethos, pathos, logos framework – the how – to teach critical thinking – the what.”

Another alum had invited Mish to discuss improving production in a corporate space. The executive group regularly dealt with the world’s leaders, “but it was Risa who most clearly captured what ailed them … and how to fix it.

“Risa talked about leading change successfully, building resilience, managing conflict effectively, leading teams effectively, critical thinking and managing and motivating performance,” the alum said.

As a Cornell undergraduate, Mish majored in communications and became a Merrill Presidential Scholar and the principal flutist in the Cornell Wind Ensemble. After that, she earned her J.D. at the Cornell Law School, serving as the note editor at the Cornell International Law Journal. She joined the Johnson School faculty in 2007.

“Johnson is eternally grateful for Risa’s rare teaching ability in multiple programs, empathetic mentorship to the masses, and dedicated and consistent service throughout the university,” Pascarella said. “She is in a league of her own.”

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