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February 23, 2012

Chancellor’s faculty award winners announced

Fourteen faculty members have been honored as winners of the 2012 chancellor’s awards for distinguished teaching, research and public service.

Distinguished teaching award winners are:

• Alice M. Blazeck, assistant professor in the Department of Acute and Tertiary Care, School of Nursing;

• Jason J. Dechant, instructor and course director in the Department of Health Promotion and Development, School of Nursing;

• Prakash Mirchandani, professor of business administration in the Katz Graduate School of Business;

• John C. Ramirez, senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and

• Manuel C. Vallejo Jr., professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, School of Medicine.

Distinguished research award winners in the senior scholar category are:

• Two University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute scientists honored for their team research: Yuan Chang, professor in the Department of Pathology, and Patrick S. Moore, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics;

• Eric Moe, professor in the Department of Music, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and

• William Wagner, professor in the departments of surgery, bioengineering and chemical and petroleum engineering and interim director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Distinguished research award winners in the junior scholar category are:

• Brent Doiron, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and

• Steven Little, assistant professor and Bicentennial Alumni Faculty Fellow in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Swanson School of Engineering, who also holds an appointment at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Distinguished public service award winners are:

• Diego Chaves-Gnecco, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine;

• David Y. Miller, professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and

• Edward K. Muller, professor in the Department of History, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Each awardee will receive a $2,000 cash prize and a $3,000 grant for the support of his or her teaching, research or public service activities. The awardees will be recognized tomorrow, Feb. 24, during Pitt’s honors convocation. Their names will be inscribed on plaques in the William Pitt Union.

Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award

A selection committee, chaired by Juan J. Manfredi, vice provost for Undergraduate Studies, recommended the teaching award winners after reviewing supporting materials.

For purposes of the award, teaching is defined broadly and includes all activities that faculty members engage in to facilitate learning by undergraduate, professional or graduate students.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg sent congratulatory letters to the winners, citing some of their accomplishments.

“The very existence of this award underscores the high institutional priority that we assign to our teaching responsibilities, and your individual efforts stand as an inspiring example of excellence in the role of University teacher,” Nordenberg wrote to the teaching award winners.

BlazeckAlice Blazeck was honored for her innovative teaching methods. She is the primary teacher for Applied Cardiopulmonary Critical Care and Foundations of Nursing Practice I, a sophomore-level course with direct patient contact. She also is a member of the team launching the initial Basic Simulation Critical Care course using high-fidelity simulation for critical care staff nurse orientation at UPMC Passavant Hospital.

“You have influenced positively the development of nursing students and helped prepare them to become admirable clinicians,” Nordenberg wrote. “Your educational expertise, recognized by our school with your receipt of two Distinguished Clinical Scholar Awards and the 2011 Dean’s Distinguished Teaching Award, also has earned you many speaking invitations at state, national and international nursing education conferences,” the chancellor noted.

Blazeck could not be reached for comment on the award.

DechantJason “Jake” Dechant was recognized by Nordenberg for his impact on the nursing school’s teaching mission. “You have revised the anatomy and physiology curriculum, introducing an innovative two-semester model that integrates technology with more traditional educational methods,” the chancellor noted. “As is evident from your excellent student evaluations, you have that rare ability to engage each student in a class and to adapt your teaching style to optimize student learning in the classroom.”

Dechant told the University Times that when he first learned he had won the teaching award, “I was so excited, I ran all the way from the mailroom to my chair’s office. I’ve been astounded, really, at the response of my colleagues here and the support from the school for my winning the award.”

Dechant came to teaching somewhat belatedly. “After graduate school, studying biological anthropology, for the first four or five years after I was hired [in 1999] I was the guy who ran the lab component for the didactic Anatomy and Physiology course. When the instructor left the school, I asked the dean if I could take over the course,” Dechant said. “Over the years, I’ve tried to integrate more multi-media, such as PowerPoint — which seems ancient now — into my courses and new technology — things like simulations — into my lab instruction. There has been a huge explosion of different types of learning options for students and the newer generation of students consumes information in very different ways from what we consider traditional lectures.”

His Anatomy and Physiology lecture course typically enrolls 200-plus students. “While most are nursing students, I also get students from arts and sciences, engineering, bioengineering,” Dechant said. “I’m constantly updating and rethinking my lectures. I think I’ve written down something that’s completely clear to everybody, but then it’s pointed out to me that it’s not. That’s actually happened several times this semester. What’s most satisfying is to take something like anatomy and physiology with its tremendous amount of content and make it understandable.”

mirchandaniPrakash Mirchandani’s areas of expertise include decisions, operations and information technology. At the Katz Graduate School of Business he teaches courses in decision technologies in manufacturing and operations management, statistical analysis, distribution networks and global supply chain management.

Nordenberg wrote, “As a recipient of the full-time MBA Outstanding Professor of the Year Award nine times, it is evident that Katz students recognize your excellent teaching. Your innovative experience-based teaching methods prepare MBA students for real-world situations … and your own excellence in teaching helped lead to a revised MBA curriculum that is improving business education at Katz.”

Mirchandani told the University Times: “I felt elation and gratitude for this prestigious distinction. I’m also grateful to my colleagues for setting the bar high and to my students for their high expectations. I’m also indebted to my former teachers, my family and the school administration for all their support.”

Mirchandani said that while successful teaching is complex and multifaceted, his philosophy is simple: “My overall teaching objective is do it well and then do it better the next time. Like in any profession, teaching is a combination of innate ability and innate desire to improve.”

He also has had a hand in curriculum design. “When I think about offering a course, I borrow, with apologies, what I learned from marketing faculty within the business discipline,” Mirchandani explained. “I look at the four P’s: process, preparation, perspective and professionalism. When data are involved in a course, I use current data, and I stress experience-based, or active, learning.”

He added that students’ expectations have evolved over time. “Students today are more worldly-wise. They are paying for an education and they expect value. They want to be competent in the outside world, and that goes beyond just getting a job.”

Mirchandani teaches classes that range from 20 to 60 students. “My larger classes tend to be more structured. I don’t deviate very much from the syllabus. In the smaller classes there is more discussion and a little less structure,” he said.

RamirezJohn Ramirez currently teaches Discrete Structures for Computer Science and Data Structures. He is a past winner of a Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award, as well as several departmental teaching awards.

Nordenberg wrote, “Your positive influence on the undergraduate learning experience of our students is evident. Your teaching has inspired students to continue with a challenging curriculum and pursue intellectually demanding subjects.”

Ramirez said, “I was happy and somewhat relieved to win this award — relieved, because I had thought they had been already been given out and that I hadn’t won.”

Despite coming from an academic family where both parents were professors at Duquesne University, Ramirez said he came to teaching rather late. “When I was an undergrad, I did some peer tutoring and that was fun. But it was really my graduate school experience as a TA that gave me my first taste of real teaching,” Ramirez told the University Times.

He teaches large classes of up to 80 students and medium-sized classes with 40-50 students, as well as some smaller groups. “In the large class, I mostly lecture, but I still allow feedback during the lecture. In the smaller classes, there’s more back-and-forth discussion. I enjoy both. My view is that if you’re a good teacher, you can teach anything; you just have to learn the content.”

In fact, he noted that he is a good example. “I was not a computer science major. I was a math and biochemistry major,” Ramirez said. “Teaching computer science is a challenge because of its difficult subject matter. In addition, the students come with all levels of understanding. Some are quite savvy and others are not as strong. So it’s a challenge helping the weaker students keep up while not boring the stronger ones.”

While some personality traits and abilities, such as a voice that projects and the skill to speak clearly, aid in becoming a good teacher, he said, “There’s no getting around the preparation you need to do to deliver good lectures. Good teaching comes from a combination of both things.”

In addition to his teaching duties, Ramirez is the director of undergraduate programs in the computer science department and a computer science liaison for Pitt’s college in high school program.

VallejoManuel Vallejo is director of obstetric anesthesia and its associated fellowship program, and medical director of Pitt’s dental anesthesia program, with appointments in the School of Medicine, School of Nursing and School of Dental Medicine.

He was praised by the chancellor: “Your outstanding record of teaching accomplishments adds to the distinction of the University.”

Nordenberg wrote: “Your efforts honor the title of ‘teacher’ and I am pleased to play a part in recognizing those efforts. As director of obstetric anesthesia your superior mentoring of students, residents and fellows has provided them with opportunities to gain the knowledge and skills needed to excel in both research and clinical practice. Your commitment to teaching is evidenced by the numerous teaching awards you have received from within your department.

“You have created a number of innovative teaching initiatives including web-based courses, simulation workshops and video courses that have significantly increased the efficacy of clinical learning and education.”

Vallejo told the University Times: “I was very honored, totally surprised and very ecstatic to win this award.”

Good teachers are not born that way, Vallejo maintained. “You definitely have to work hard at it,” he said.

He said he alters his teaching approach somewhat based on class size.

“In the big classes, it’s pretty much a lecture, and in small classes there’s much more opportunity for discussion and constructive criticism. I also teach residents, where there might be only five people, and that’s much more a hands-on approach.”

Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award

A selection committee, chaired by George Klinzing, vice provost for Research, recommended the senior and junior scholar winners after reviewing supporting materials.

Senior Scholar category

The senior scholar category recognizes “an outstanding and continuing record of research and scholarly activity.”

ChangYuan Chang and Patrick Moore were recognized by the chancellor as “the co-discoverers of two of the seven known human tumor viruses” — Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, the causative agent of the most common cancer in AIDS patients, and the Merkel cell polyomavirus, the first polyomavirus known to cause cancer.

“Your team has spawned two entirely new fields of research,” Nordenberg continued, “which has led to new paradigms and insights into the vital origins of cancer. These discoveries are distinct from other searches for new viruses infecting humans because they linked molecular biology to epidemiology and discovered not only the infectious agents but their connection to important diseases. This has raised the international profile and reputation of the University as a center for virology and tumor virology research.”

MooreIn a joint email to the University Times, the researchers stated that their initial reaction to learning they had won the research award was: “We were dee-lighted! And we are particularly happy to have the support  from colleagues here at Pitt that this award represents.”

Both scientists expressed a joy for what they did: “Scientists — despite their various faults — above all else should be in love with the truth and so when you find something true, something no one else has seen before, then it is just perfect.”

Working in teams, Chang and Moore wrote, is a much more common practice than generally thought. “Most research is done in teams. For some scientists, collaborations are short-term or focused to a specific area. But many scientists have stable, long-term collaborations with other scientists. There is just too much information for a single person to be expert in all aspects of the field. Working together allows us to bring two different perspectives and personalities to bear on a single problem.”

Asked if they gravitated toward scientific research at an early age, the pair answered separately.

Moore said, “Yes and no. I liked science but I was an indifferent student in high school, ultimately dropping out. It wasn’t until college that I really thought about going into science.”

Chang said, “No and yes. I understood science on an intellectual level, but it was not until quite late in my professional training that the pull of basic science took hold.”

Moore elaborated on his career evolution: “I went to college in Utah at a small liberal arts school called Westminster College. It was fantastic. My major professor, Barry Quinn, instilled both a respect and awe for biology. For him, teaching science was a calling and you learned to love it because he loved it.”

Chang said, “I was all set to embark on a clinical career in medicine until a basic research fellowship completely reshaped my trajectory.”

MoeComposer Eric Moe was praised by the chancellor for having achieved national and international eminence in the music field.

“With more than 80 works to your credit, your music is widely performed by the most accomplished soloists and ensembles in the U.S. and internationally,” Nordenberg wrote. “Your diverse output includes works for large orchestras, chamber music, solo instrumental, vocal and choral, electro-acoustic and multimedia compositions. Your colleagues laud your accomplishments, calling you ‘one of the most consistently impressive and compelling musicians working today’ and ‘one of the most accomplished and successful composers of his generation.’”

Moe told the University Times: “I was delighted and very pleased to win this award and a little surprised, too, because I believe traditionally it has gone to people in the sciences. It’s nice to see that my kind of scholarship is also considered of equal value, as I think it should be.”

While he came from a family with a number of musicians, his talent isn’t just hereditary, Moe said. “I’m not a big believer in innate talent. Even Mozart had to work at it for a few years before he got real good.”

He credits his composition teachers at Princeton and the University of California-Berkeley with influencing his pieces. “I was very fortunate. I had wonderful teachers — Milton Babbitt, Andrew Imerie and Paul Lansky leap to mind. They taught me so much.”

Is there such as thing as “writer’s block” for composers? “Oh, yes. Sometimes I get stuck and occasionally I’ll have to abandon a piece, but mostly the solution is to keep working at it and eventually it resolves itself,” he said.

Most of his compositions over the years have been commissioned. “So I’m used to deadlines. In fact, I like having deadlines; they’re wonderful motivators,” Moe said.

WagnerWilliam Wagner’s research interests involve the application of engineering and materials science principles to develop technologies that aid in the treatment and diagnosis of cardiovascular disease. The primary research focus of Wagner’s laboratory in the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine is in the area of cardiovascular engineering with projects that address medical device biocompatibility and design, tissue engineering and targeted imaging. The laboratory’s mission is to apply engineering principles to develop technologies that will improve the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease.

Nordenberg recognized the work of Wagner and his research team.

“You are known for your clinically oriented biomaterials research and development and, in particular, for defining disease-specific needs that drive the design of new materials and techniques,” the chancellor wrote.

“Your research group has made substantial and continuing contributions to the field of biomaterials, particularly in the development of biodegradable, elastic polymers that are essential for soft tissue engineering. The processing and application of these materials as temporary technical supports to intervene in cardiovascular disease has the potential to substantially alter how patients are treated following a heart attack and during surgery when artherosclerosed vessels are bypassed,” he wrote.

“In the area of medical device biocompatibility, your group has defined how blood biocompatibility can be quantified by interrogating circulating blood cells from animals implanted with cardiovascular devices. The characterization and application of these methods [have] helped to optimize cardiovascular device design prior to the progression of these devices into clinical trials. The most widely utilized ventricular assist device today — the Heartmate II — was evaluated and developed at the University with your research group using these techniques.”

Wagner told the University Times: “I was certainly delighted, but also honored. I have had the pleasure of knowing and, in some cases, working with previous winners of this award. To join their company is quite meaningful to me.”

Performing research can be its own reward, Wagner said. “There are a number of [pleasing] aspects. First, there is the pleasure that comes in the creative process of design. Also, working with a team to develop new approaches, seeing whether a new material or device prototype performs as expected and evolving the approach to incorporate the findings, as well as translating new knowledge in science as part of a solution to a clinical problem” all are rewarding, Wagner maintained. “Probably most satisfying is having been a small part of a process that successfully translates a solution to a patient, and then getting to see and meet specific individuals who benefit from that technology.”

He said that virtually all the research he works on is team-based.

“My research group has members with a variety of backgrounds: bioengineering, chemical engineering, polymer chemistry, as well as surgeons with clinical experience,” Wagner explained. “We also collaborate extensively with other faculty on most of our projects. One of the great characteristics of the University of Pittsburgh that is well appreciated among my peers at other institutions is the ease with which collaborations can be built and sustained here. This general attitude, combined with the excellence of our faculty, makes it relatively easy to build teams to attack complex problems.”

Wagner’s love of science started at an early age. “One of my earliest interests was in astronomy. Growing up in Arizona, I had great access to regularly clear, dark skies and I was able to combine a love of hiking with the exploration of the skies. I found in middle and high school that astronomy served as a perfect introduction to the scientific method, and when learning the history of the field, it became clear to me how scientific discovery hinged upon technological innovation,” Wagner said.

He also credits a number of people for supporting his research successes. “I have certainly been the beneficiary of a supportive and tolerant family, both in my youth and today with my own wife and children. I have also been fortunate to have excellent mentoring over the years at the University from several generous medical and engineering school faculty members.

“As a youth, a key influence was becoming involved in a service organization that had my friends and I engaged in a variety of community projects each weekend. In addition to forming lifelong friendships, this group allowed us to recognize our responsibility to help those in need, and the pleasure that comes with such a pursuit,” Wagner added.

Junior Scholar category

The junior scholar research category recognizes those “whose exceptional early contributions have demonstrated great potential and have already produced a measure of international standing.”

DoironBrent Doiron performs research that seeks to identify how single neurons and networks of neurons code information about relevant inputs. Using a combination of nonlinear systems theory, stochastic differential equations and information theory, he studies this problem in the context of somatosensory, auditory and electro-sensory systems. The main goal is to link brain dynamics responsible for coding with putative coding schemes that may be general across many sensory systems. Of particular interest is how correlations and synchrony across a population of thalamic and cortical neurons influences the information throughput of sensory processing.

The chancellor paid tribute to the wide-ranging implications of Doiron’s research. “The breadth of topics that you cover is exceptionally diverse,” Nordenberg wrote, “with significant contributions in cellular neuroscience; sensory computation ranging over electro-sensory, auditory, somatosensory and olfactory systems; cognitive neuroscience, and new research in neural pathologies such as Parkinson’s disease and tinnitus. While these areas are traditionally separate subfields of neuroscience, your general theoretical framework for how neurons create and transfer variability has provided deep links between the fields, thereby exposing some core neuroscience principles.”

Doiron told the University Times: “I was very excited to receive the award. Having the recognition of the my peers at the University of Pittsburgh and the scientific community at large is a high honor. I am very lucky to have the job that I do and to have worked with many great scientists, all of whom have contributed to this award.”

Doing research is rewarding for the positive feelings that come from discovery, he said. “While I enjoy answering questions, the real thrill is forming a well-posed question that has the hope of being answered. It sounds easy, but that could not be further from the truth. Being a theoretical neuroscientist makes this challenge doubly difficult. The question must have enough depth to require a theory to expose its intricacies, but the answer should speak to the neuroscience community at large. In my research I have always tried to achieve this balance.”

Doiron’s mathematics background is a natural fit for his role as a theoretical neuroscientist. “Mathematics has a long history of influence in neuroscience, including, for example, the Nobel Prize-winning work of neuroscientists Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley,” Doiron said. “However, a trend in modern neuroscience is to diversify efforts to understand the brain — someone working in the motor system is often not informed by research in the auditory system.”

Doiron continued: “Experimental neuroscience must do this because it is unreasonable for a single laboratory to conduct research in many different fields. Theoretical neuroscience aims to find general principles that transcend specific brain areas, brain diseases or brain computations. By creating and exploring theories of the nervous system, the hope is to start to unify our understanding of the nervous system.”

As a result, Doiron’s research always takes a team approach. “Neuroscience is the ‘poster child’ of interdisciplinary sciences, and I could not imagine doing serious research in the field and not having insights from colleagues both from theoretical and experimental sides of the continuum. Collaboration is at the core of my scientific view, and in my opinion the only way neuroscience will move forward this century,” Doiron said.

Tracing his career path, he said catching the neuroscience bug did not happen until he got to college.

“I was more interested in sports and feel that I learned many lessons about discipline and drive to succeed there first. I became interested in theoretical neuroscience as an undergraduate when I had a summer research experience. I am still working on some of the questions that I began to investigate that summer. My PhD advisers Leonard Maler and Andre Longtin were core influences at early stages, as well as a great group of PhD colleagues when I was a graduate student. It has been a fun ride,” Doiron said.

LittleSteven Little’s lab team focuses on therapies that are biomimetic, that is, they replicate the biological function and interactions of living entities using synthetic systems. The research team collaborates heavily with faculty from the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Starzl Institute of Transplantation and the Center for Craniofacial Regeneration.

Nordenberg noted that Little’s research “has impacted the controlled release of drugs, creating more effective treatment regimes. Specifically, your work on a ‘tool box’ for designing controlled-release polymers that will give desired release profiles is truly groundbreaking. You have developed fundamentally new ways to incorporate ‘cell-like communications’ into artificial particles and thereby achieve results that cannot be produced by the previous state-of-the-art release vehicles. Your very recent work on synthesizing chemically patterned, or ‘patchy,’ particles is also pioneering in its implications for developing a new paradigm for controlled release.”

Little told the University Times, “I was really honored to win this award. I’ve won awards before, but this one is really prestigious partly because it requires four letters of support from essentially national figures. I do science all the time, which also means going to conferences, and there people are always hard on you, which you need. But to read the praise I got in these letters, especially at a young age, was very gratifying.”

Little said he got the science bug early on. “With doing research, I don’t think I could not do it,” he said. “First of all, it’s fun. I love the discovery process. But the most fun is setting things up for students and watching their faces when they make the discovery. In that sense, my research and teaching are inseparable, one and the same thing.”

Regarding his research team’s development of the tool box, Little said, “In the past, everybody was trying to do something based on their own system. What we tried to do, and this is the tool analogy, is to design a delivery system that was accessible to everybody, no matter the drug or the polymer or the shape and size. A tool that everybody can use.”

Little credited his colleagues with performing research that goes beyond an individual’s input.

“The reason the sum is greater than its parts on a research team is that with multiple people you get innovation. I also believe diversity is crucial — gender, race, everything — because people bring different perspectives to a problem,” he explained.

Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Service Award

A selection committee, chaired by Andrew R. Blair, vice provost for Faculty Affairs, recommended the winners after reviewing supporting materials.

For purposes of the award, public service is defined broadly as the use of University and academic resources to address social problems and to improve the general welfare of humankind.

In his letter to the public service award winners, Nordenberg stated, “This award underscores the high institutional priority that we assign to applying the expertise of faculty members to address social problems in ways that are consistent with our teaching and research missions.”

Dr Diego Chaves GneccoDiego Chaves-Gnecco was praised by Nordenberg for bringing medical care and health education to the children of the region’s Spanish-speaking families.

“In 2002,” Nordenberg wrote, “you founded a clinical program that has grown into what now is known as Salud Para Niños (Health for Children), which has succeeded in providing culturally and linguistically competent primary care for children and families. You have built your patient base by forming your own network through churches, listservs and a local radio program. The work and service you deliver is done with characteristic energy and unfailing dedication to providing the best medical care and wellness to children and families.”

Chaves-Gnecco told the University Times, “I was humbled and honored to win this award. Just by looking at the previous faculty members who have won in the past, I feel honored to be among them and I look at them as models for how I’d like to continue my work in the Latino community.”

While the Hispanic community comprises a relatively small proportion of the region’s population, Chaves-Gnecco noted that there are approximately 30,000 Spanish-speaking people in western Pennsylvania who are part of an underserved community.

“When I first came to the United States 14 years ago, I was very lucky to have many people support me, and it made me want to give back to the community. I feel it is a moral obligation. A goal of our programs is the specific objective of getting children healthy, but more than that also getting them to become good members of the Latino community, to improve the well-being of that community,” he said.

In addition, his programs provide a special experience for health care trainees. “We work with Spanish-speaking college students, dental students, nursing students, medical students, who do rotations with us and who get a unique experience learning about the Latino community and community work in general,” he said.

A further goal of his public service activities is to help children form career goals, Chaves-Gnecco said. “We want them to think about the future, not only to get through high school but to go on to college,” he said.

Six of his clinical program’s former patients have qualified for college scholarships under the Pittsburgh Promise program, he noted. “That’s a tangible result that we can point to to show that our program is a good model. I hope to continue to do this work, which I find to be very rewarding.”

MillerDavid Miller was honored by the chancellor for his work in establishing and managing CONNECT, the Congress of Neighboring Communities. CONNECT is an organization that promotes cooperation and collaboration between the City of Pittsburgh and the 37 neighboring municipalities  comprising the region’s urban core.

CONNECT, Nordenberg wrote, “serves as an advocate for and a voice of the collective interests of this urban core, as well as developing and enhancing ways the municipalities can work together to deliver important public services, and maintaining a forum for discussion and implementation of new ways to maximize economic prosperity for the region.

“As one highly placed City of Pittsburgh official attests in his strong letter of support: ‘For the first time, because of CONNECT, the City of Pittsburgh is communicating regularly with its municipal neighbors and these efforts are bearing fruit. From bulk purchases and cross-boundary vacant land policies to new avenues of funding for EMS and multi-municipal sewer management, Dr. Miller’s brainchild is having real financial impact on the communities of our urban core.’”

Miller told the University Times he was both honored and humbled to receive the public service award.

The germ of the CONNECT program, he said, arose from his former post as director of management and budget for the city in the 1990s. “But from that vantage point when the idea first occurred to me, there wasn’t the will to put it together,” Miller said. “But by 2008, I started talking with officials in the city and others, tested the waters, and I found the level of receptivity to be much greater.”

The work is rewarding in and of itself, he noted. “When the end of the month comes I’m just amazed that I get paid for doing this type of work.”

Does the public service inform his teaching? “Absolutely,” Miller said. “CONNECT is a piece of the Center for Metropolitan Studies and through the center we’re trying to improve the overall quality of life. As I tell my students, I have a passion for doing that: I live and breathe it 24/7. I also think of GSPIA as a regional asset. We owe much to our community. And to bring the University out to the community and the community back into the University makes students — and all of us — better. So I was delighted, actually, to win this award.”

MullerEdward Muller was recognized for his decades-long work in “reconceptualizing the use of riverfront industrial sites, which were being vacated by de-industrialization,” Nordenberg wrote. The chancellor further cited Muller’s work dating back to the 1980s in the movement to preserve many of Pittsburgh’s historical documents and artifacts.

“You contributed to the rethinking of the mission of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, which led to the establishment of the Senator John Heinz History Center,” Nordenberg noted, adding that Muller played a key role in many local preservation projects through his service on the Steel Industry Heritage Task Force and the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Areas, a unit of the National Park Service, as well as the Steel Valley Trail Council.

Muller told the University Times: “My initial reaction: I was surprised, gratified and appreciative. One does not engage in service activities in order to gain recognition from the University and colleagues. Rather, you see something that needs to be done and for which you have the interest and skills to contribute. For these activities to be recognized years later by the University is almost unimaginable. And, it must be added that the award also rests upon the great work of staff members, board members and even the public at the institutions with which I was involved.”

Public service activities are rewarding not only for what they achieve, but also for the bonds they create, he said.

“The rewards come from seeing visions set at the outset achieved in some fashion and helping the communities served understand the past better, take pride in the past (often of their ancestors) and perhaps enjoying a better quality of life,” Muller said. “The rewards also come from the friendships formed with staff members, board members and some of the general public. I can look back upon having contributed to the development of some wonderful institutions and upon having warm memories of some wonderful people.”

Public service informs both Muller’s teaching and research, he noted.

“Since my teaching and scholarship focus on the urban past and urban affairs, public service contributed immensely in many ways. In addition to learning more about the history of our city, region and specific communities in the area, I learned a great deal about how things get done from working with politicians, foundation staff and, more broadly, civic leaders,” Muller maintained. “This knowledge enriched my teaching; I could often bring home to students important insights through my relating personally real-world examples. Dependent upon the media’s version of politics and government, most students have little understanding of the intersections among government agencies, elected officials, local communities and various interest groups; these relationships often determine what may or may not get done.”

Public service also has enhanced Muller’s advising skills, and led to career opportunities and professional connections for his students. “For example, years ago I began to see the career opportunities in nonprofit organizations, but most undergraduate students had little knowledge of this world. I was able to open a window onto these possibilities for them. Involvement in some initiatives opened up topics of significance, which I could eventually convey through scholarly publication,” Muller said.

“In short, public service activities that resulted in contributions I could make outside the University seemed, in turn, to make considerable contributions to my professional life. I had not anticipated this benefit when I first got involved outside the University.”

—Peter Hart

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