Prize Winners for Educational Excellence 2024

May 21, 2024

This year, nine PSD instructors and students have been honored for excellence in teaching the next generation of scientists.

PSD graduate students earn Physical Sciences Prizes for Teaching

Six graduate students have been awarded a Physical Sciences Teaching Prize for 2023–24: Minjun Choi (Chemistry), Matthew Oline (Statistics), John Peterson (Chemistry), Duncan Rocha (Physics), Haynes Stephens (Geophysical Sciences), and Kristina Trifonova (Chemistry).

The Teaching Prize is based on nominations from students who shared compelling evidence of honorees’ outstanding contributions made to their education. Excellence in teaching is a fundamental goal of the University of Chicago, and these nominees exemplified this standard by fostering a love of learning in classes that students were previously fearful of, by expressing belief in their students’ abilities to overcome adversity and challenges, by creatively and persistently ensuring that students were mastering concepts, and by maintaining a level of commitment to their students’ success that goes beyond expectations. Each will receive $1,000 as part of the award.

Learn more about this year’s prize recipients below.

Minjun Choi

Minjun Choi,  Chemistry 

Minjun Choi is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Chemistry. His research is in synthetic organic chemistry with Prof. Scott Snyder, especially focusing on the total synthesis of complex natural products. Minjun served as a teaching assistant for Organic Chemistry from Autumn 2022–Spring 2023. Beyond being a kind and knowledgeable TA, Minjun is also extremely dedicated to helping students, who recognize him for his knowledge, compassion, and helpfulness.

Matthew Oline

Matthew Oline, Statistics

Matthew Oline is a second-year PhD student in Computational and Applied Mathematics. His research is focused on pattern formation in dynamical systems. In the 2023–24 academic year, he served as a teaching assistant in probability and linear algebra. His students describe Matthew as an outstanding TA, who would take the time to provide a “mini-lecture” for confusing topics and provide examples to reinforce the conceptual material, enhancing their learning experience. He is recognized for his flexibility, patience, and commitment to his students.

John Peterson

John Peterson, Chemistry

John Peterson is a fifth-year PhD student in the Department of Chemistry under Philippe Guyot-Sionnest. His research is in infrared photodetection using mercury chalcogenide quantum dots. In the Winter quarter of 2024, he was a grader and tutor for the undergraduate thermodynamics course in chemistry, covering topics of macroscopic thermodynamics, elementary statistical mechanics, and solutions. John has demonstrated an unwavering dedication to supporting undergraduate education. His students highlight his responses to seemingly simple questions with substantial explanations, offering additional information that serves as exposure for higher-level courses.

Duncan Rocha

Duncan Rocha, Physics

Duncan Rocha is a fourth year physics PhD student, studying high energy theory with a focus on phenomenology. He has TAed electronics lab and the intro physics sequence. Students appreciate Duncan's willingness to help, noting that he resolves issues with a smile no matter how long it takes. His friendly and approachable nature creates a lively and fun environment where everyone feels comfortable. Duncan's role extends beyond academic assistance; he forms lasting friendships with students through shared interests like sports and chess. One student fondly recalls looking forward to facing Duncan's team in intramural softball, highlighting the personal connections he makes.

Haynes Stephens

Haynes Stephens, Geophysical Sciences

Haynes Stephens is a sixth-year PhD student in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences. His research focuses on the impacts of climate change to US agriculture. In the 2023–24 academic year, he was TA in the physical sciences course Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast. His students highlight that Haynes was patient and fostered a participatory environment, where he let students learn through questions and curiosity.

Kristina Trifonava

Kristina Trifonava, Chemistry

Kristina Trifonova is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Chemistry, where she conducts research in statistical mechanics. She is currently exploring the computational abilities of chemical reaction networks in the Vaikuntanathan and Murugan groups. From Autumn 2023 to Spring 2024, Kristina taught three quarters of the course Comprehensive General Chemistry, where, according to her students, she went above and beyond. She created a supportive, safe, and fun environment that was also educational by facilitating an open and engaging discussion section.

PSD instructor, graduate student, and undergraduate student win teaching awards from the College

The University of Chicago has honored instructors and graduate and undergraduate students for their exceptional work as teachers. Nominated by undergraduates in the College, these winners demonstrated the ability to push students to think beyond the classroom, and to share their disciplines in exciting ways.

Glenn and Claire Swogger Award

The Glenn and Claire Swogger Award for Exemplary Classroom Teaching recognizes outstanding teachers with College appointments who introduce students to habits of scholarly thinking, inquiry and engagement in the Core Curriculum—the College’s general education program.

Hannah Lant

Hannah Lant, Assistant Instructional Professor, Chemistry

Each year, Assistant Instructional Professor Hannah Lant teaches nearly 500 students and cherishes getting to know each one. An instructor for several courses, including General Chemistry, a capstone lab for majors called Experimental Physical Chemistry, and a Core class designed for non-STEM students, Lant said she treats her students as colleagues and collaborates with them to expand their knowledge and interests.

The University of Chicago campus is another reason she deeply enjoys her work. Any General Chemistry textbook, Lant explained, will refer to at least several ground-breaking developments in chemistry that took place right here at the University. She appreciates that she can teach in the same setting where these experiments, which helped lead to the modern-day conception of the atom, occurred. Learn more about Lant’s teaching experiences.

Wayne C. Booth Prize

The Wayne C. Booth Prize for Excellence in Teaching is awarded annually to University of Chicago graduate students for outstanding instruction of undergraduates.

Quan Duong

Quan Duong, Chemistry

As a TA for Organic Chemistry, one of the ways Quan Duong has taught his students is through a simple analogy: Legos. The comparison, he explains, helps them to “play” with the molecules and keeps the subject from getting dry.

Aside from his work teaching students, Duong also works in chemical biology. Incited by his fascination with DNA, he has researched gene editing, hoping to help discover solutions to molecular diseases. He specializes in mitochondrial DNA editing—a field that may hold the answer to revolutionizing human health in the future.

He said he has enjoyed conversations with students, during which they often share their most brilliant insights and strongest concerns. Learn more about Duong’s teaching experiences.

College Undergraduate Student Prize

For the first time, undergraduate teaching assistants have been awarded the College Undergraduate Student Prize in Undergraduate Teaching.

Laura Zielinski

Laura Zielinski, Computer Science

Laura Zielinski took Honors Calculus on a whim as a first-year student, and found her academic passion by noticing the number of math tie-ins to computer science. Now as a TA for courses like Formal Languages and Theory of Algorithms, she has guided students through the theoretical underpinnings that tie the two disciplines together.

Zielinski said that in the course of her education, she has learned that at least half of writing code or math proofs is making them readable and understandable. Writing skills correlate strongly with coding and proof-writing ability, so, surprising as it may be, writing clarity, organization, and argumentation are things she focuses on when teaching math and computer science students.

Next year, she is starting a PhD in programming languages, a field of computer science that closely relates to math. Learn more about Zielinski’s teaching experiences.

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