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March 6, 2014

Chancellor awards honor faculty

The 2014 chancellor’s faculty and staff award-winners were recognized at the 38th annual honors convocation in Carnegie Music Hall Feb. 28. Each of the 21 recipients received a $2,000 prize, while the faculty recipients received an additional $3,000 grant to support their service, teaching or research activities. Winners’ names are listed on a plaque in the William Pitt Union.

Chancellor’s Distinguished

Public Service Award

BidandaBopaya Bidanda

Bopaya Bidanda, chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, has been a faculty member here for more than 25 years. His award letter cites his development, with a colleague, of the Manufacturing Assistance Center (MAC), which offers machinist training programs to the displaced and unemployed, as well as his work using engineering principles to improve the work of local health care institutions. It also cites his work on the Engineering Accreditation Commission, which has involved him in the evaluation of engineering programs internationally.

“I’m honored and gratified to have received the award,” Bidanda says. “It is something that was unexpected. I am joining the company of many distinguished individuals, some of whom have served as role models for me.”

As MAC director, he notes that “manufacturing employment can really uplift a region.” While MAC helps local startup businesses, “its primary work is to take individuals who have few skills and in 16 weeks we transform them into skilled machinists who are very employable in the Pittsburgh region.”

Concludes Bidanda: “It’s a passion I’ve had for many years.”

Rob.RuckRobert Ruck

“I was delighted,” says Robert Ruck, history faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, about his chancellor’s award. “It was particularly gratifying to receive it from [Chancellor] Mark Nordenberg, who I think has really exemplified ways in which the University ought to be engaged in Pittsburgh and the region … It was pretty meaningful for it to come from him, because I know he takes public service seriously.”

Ruck was recognized in the award letter for restoring public memory of the Negro leagues, promoting public discussion of the role of African-American and Latin American players in the development of major-league baseball in the United States, public programming on Pittsburgh history and his philanthropic work in the area of public health.

Ruck wrote his dissertation in the 1980s on the role that the Negro leagues played in helping the black community before desegregation, “providing a bridge from the sandlots to the white community,” he explains. By 1988, he had convinced the Pittsburgh Pirates to publicly celebrate the Negro leagues in an event to which they invited surviving members of the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. Ruck made baseball cards of Negro leagues players for the event, which drew the attention of the national press.

“It helped to break the ice,” he says. “In the years since it’s become fairly common practice to have these sorts of heritage nights” in Major League Baseball parks.

In subsequent years, through books, documentaries and other works, Ruck drew attention to the intertwined legacy of the Negro and Latin American baseball leagues and their players.

He also co-authored a biography of Pittsburgh Steelers founder and owner Art Rooney — “Rooney: A Sporting Life” — and became guest historian for the Sports Museum at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, “looking at sports as a way to understand people in this community,” he says. “I don’t think there is another community in the country that has used sports as much to tell its story — and I think it is a pretty incredible story.”

His work in the Dominican Republic as part of his Latin American baseball research acquainted him with men who would become the country’s president and its ambassador to the U.S. Ruck used those connections to help bring the country’s needs to the attention of a local charitable organization, Global Links, which now is shipping medical supplies to the Dominican Republic.

SukitsJay Sukits

“I have to tell you honestly, I was humbled by it,” says Jay Sukits, faculty member in the Katz Graduate School of Business, about his award. “I thought it was just an honor to be nominated.”

The chancellor’s award letter lauds Sukits for several accomplishments: Launching the Financial Literacy Initiative with Gene Natali Jr., senior vice president at C.S. McKee; working as board member and chairman of the development committee of Sarah Heinz House (SHH), the local Boys and Girls Club headquarters, and founding the Student Veterans Association at Pitt.

The Financial Literacy Initiative was begun two years ago when Sukits appeared on a local panel discussion and was asked: You are teaching your students economic theory, but can they balance a checkbook? In April 2013, the initiative held its first event on campus, a panel discussion including Pitt and local high school students. Now 80 students in two of his courses will work as mentors to students in 10 local high schools, providing them with feedback on their financial planning for attending and affording college. Sukits also has 120 students here doing their own financial planning concerning their careers, saving money and paying off their student loans. On April 1, the Financial Literacy Initiative will hold another panel discussion on campus.

His affinity for SHH began when he enjoyed the facility as a child. Beginning in 2007, he has worked with the largest College of Business Administration club, the Finance Club, “to find a way for some of these students to give back a little,” he says. The club’s annual charitable golf event designated SHH as its sole beneficiary two years ago, raising $45,000 for them so far. Business students now are involved in helping SHH build an alumni database and develop marketing plans to make sure its alumni are involved in SHH’s future.

Chancellor’s Distinguished

Teaching Award

greenfieldSayre N. Greenfield

“It’s nice to get recognition and see that some of my ventures into methods of teaching a little bit beyond the norm, somebody thinks have been successful,” says Sayre N. Greenfield, English faculty member at Pitt-Greensburg.

Greenfield directs his students in what is likely their first digital humanities project, helping them use electronic databases of world literature to trace how a single word has changed in meaning through the centuries.

“I like to think I’ve been at the forefront of this,” he says.

Indeed, his letter from the chancellor applauds Greenfield’s “innovative use of electronic database search technology in assignments for the History of English Language course” and his work “developing ways that will make it possible for our students to gain practical experience in working with digital methods for generating, archiving and researching cultural resources in the humanities.”

“The students do need a lot of guidance through this text mining,” says Greenfield, who has taught at UPG since 1994. He is pleased that his position at Pitt provides him with the backing to undertake these endeavors: “An awful lot of what I do in my teaching of this sort depends on the conjunction of being at a liberal arts campus, where one deals with students very much on a personal basis” while having the resources of a research university.

Lance-JonesAAMCCynthia Lance-Jones

Cynthia Lance-Jones, neurobiology faculty member in the School of Medicine, is being recognized with a distinguished teaching award for her role as coordinator for the first-year basic science block in the School of Medicine and as assistant dean for medical student research.

The award letter says Lance-Jones has “positively influenced the development of medical students and helped prepare them to be outstanding clinicians. You have consistently received outstanding teaching evaluations from your students.

“Beyond that important form of recognition, you also are one of only three faculty members who have been repeatedly requested to provide review sessions for U.S. Medical Licensing Exam Step 1 exams.”

The letter also notes her previous teaching awards: the 2013 Excellence in Education Award as Small Group Facilitator from the Class of 2016 and the 2013 Alpha Omega Alpha Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Steve LevitanSteven Levitan

Steven Levitan, faculty member in the Swanson school’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is being honored with a chancellor’s teaching award for his “development of new courses, including the Very Large Scale Integration design sequence, the Computer Modeling course, and the Digital Design Laboratory, [which] have set the standard for how your department teaches laboratory courses and have made major contributions to the curriculum in the Swanson school.

“You have used a number of innovative teaching initiatives to help your students become critical thinkers, including the use of a ‘flipped classroom,’ which engages students with a hands-on approach to learning,” the chancellor wrote.

Levitan says he has long used his class time to interact with students, in the flipped classroom model, rather than going over new materials. This new classroom approach is particularly important because all his classes require students to learn by undertaking projects, he says.

“When I was an undergrad, the great learning happened at 4 in the morning” with his peers, rather than with his professors, says Levitan.

The most important lessons he can impart in the classroom, he says, are: “Here’s the problem, here are the materials you need to solve the problem and here’s how you can incorporate the materials into the solutions — that’s where learning happens.”

Concerning the award, Levitan adds: “I felt gratified to be acknowledged for the contribution I feel like I’ve been making for 27 years or so. I was really glad to hear it from (Mark) Nordenberg himself.”

PoloyacSamuel M. Poloyac

“I am not a big advocate of lecturing,” says Samuel M. Poloyac, a pharmacy faculty member who teaches large classes for the school’s doctoral students and for students across most of the Schools of the Health Sciences. “I want an interactive classroom. I think there’s a level of confusion that is healthy in a classroom,” if students are asked probing questions that require deeper thought. “And that’s a big challenge in a large group.”

Poloyac is chair of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s core curriculum committee and developed the interdisciplinary graduate-level course Translational Research in the Health Sciences, which the chancellor’s letter says “has been instrumental in introducing students to the objectives, concepts, models and processes of clinical and translational science.”

“Translational” means taking basic science discoveries and “translating that work over to a meaningful intervention for patients,” Poloyac explains, and the course trains students across the Health Sciences to work together.

His PharmD course, with about 115 students per class, employs a website simulation to teach how to dose patients, changing calculations based on body size, drug delivery method and drug effects.

Poloyac earned his BS from Pitt and has known several previous winners of his award. “To be taught by some of the past awardees from the School of Pharmacy and for me to be named among them is a great honor,” he says.

Chancellor’s Distinguished

Research Award

Ivet BaharIvet Bahar

Ivet Bahar, chair of the Department of Computational and Systems Biology in the School of Medicine, received a senior scholar award for research that, as she explains, focuses on “understanding mechanics of biological function at the molecular level: developing computational models and methods which are broadly to gain a mechanistic understanding of the way molecules interact as they accomplish their biological function.”

The chancellor’s award letter notes that she is “internationally recognized for your outstanding work in the field of computational biology and biophysics.”

It cites several factors that made Bahar’s nomination stand out: Her work on the theory and methods of elastic network models for proteins; founding the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics in the School of Medicine, which became her department in 2004, and co-founding the first degree-granting program established between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, which was selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health as one of 10 national HHMI-National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Interfaces Initiative awardees in the nation.

In addition, Bahar’s department notes that she is associate director of the Drug Discovery Institute, an active member of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the Molecular Medicine Institute, all at Pitt.

“It’s great to be appreciated,” she says, “and I’m really very happy to have found an opportunity to do research here, so I’m really honored.”

Jonathan pruittJonathan Pruitt

Winning a junior scholar research award surprised Jonathan Pruitt, faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Dietrich school. He had been warned by his department chair, he says, that it takes a few years and a few nominations to win.

“It’s very exciting to know that in a big university with all these professors, they know who I am,” Pruitt says.

The award letter cites Pruitt’s “research vision — to gain a deeper understanding of how variation in individuals’ ‘personalities’ influences social organization, species interactions and extinction risk. Your innovative work has contributed to several disciplines within ecology and evolution, and has made a powerful connection with the general public.”

Pruitt studies how individual variations in behavior influence whether animal societies succeed. He looked at a few of the 25 species of spider that are social (out of the 43,000 species worldwide), watching them in the Kalahari Desert, the Amazon basin of eastern Ecuador and the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. Each colony was begun by a single spider to which Pruitt gave behavioral tests. Then he watched how well each colony fared:  how well they reproduced, fought off disease, jettisoned unproductive members or recruited new, stronger compatriots. After tracking small spider colonies in the field for seven years, he discovered that the personality type of the founder determined the prosperity of each colony.

“People read a lot into this,” he reports, noting he has fielded calls from major media across the country and been subject to questions about the implications of his research on human society and, for instance, the behavior of Hillary Clinton. “People see parallels to identify with — so I think media outlets like it,” Pruitt says. But he seems happier that the research led to papers in Ecology Letters in December 2013 and a paper in revision currently with Nature.

Marcus Rediker portraitMarcus Rediker

“I’m thrilled; I’m tremendously honored,” says history faculty member Marcus Rediker in reaction to his chancellor’s award in the senior scholar category. “It has special meaning for me, knowing that this is the last time Mark Nordenberg will be delivering these awards. He’s had an outstanding tenure as chancellor and it is great to receive the award from him.”

Nordenberg’s letter applauds Rediker’s “record of accomplishment … over the past 30 years. The committee was deeply impressed with the number of important external awards that have been garnered by your books and articles. For example, one of your most recent volumes, “The Slave Ship: A Human History,” has been awarded the James Rawley Prize by the American Historical Association for the best book in Atlantic history and the George Washington Book Prize for the best book on the founding era of the United States. Equally impressive is the fact that you have been one of the foundational figures in the field of Atlantic history and that you have made seminal contributions to the fields of working-class history, maritime history and the history of slavery.”

Rediker is pleased to be recognized for his corpus of work as well as for that of his department.

“We’ve actually tried to build our department around these kinds of themes so it is an acknowledgment of what the department has done through the years,” he says. “There’s a sense of common purpose and that is one of the things I’ve liked most about it.

“I’ve been at Pitt since 1994,” he adds, “and I’ve had opportunities to leave. I chose to stay here because I like the department and the University so much. To think that the University knows my scholarship [concerning] history from below — people who have been left out of history in the past — makes me all the more appreciative of the honor.”

Nathaniel RosiNathaniel Rosi

Chemistry faculty member Nathaniel Rosi has been recognized as a junior scholar.

The major thrust of his research aims “to develop networks for controlling the assembly of molecules and nanoparticles into ordered, hierarchical material,” he says. “The nanoparticles can talk to one another; their physical properties become linked [and] exhibit collective properties that are different …” than the same materials exhibited before.

“We want to precisely control how these molecules are linked together …. By controlling the assembly of the molecules we can control the properties of the material.”  Rosi’s research may lead to better methods for capturing CO2 from coal-fired power plants, for instance.

He says he is proud of the award and labels it “not an acknowledgement of my own work but more of an acknowledgment of the hard work and dedication of all the post-docs who aren’t often recognized individually … I’m the leader [but] they’re doing the benchwork, working the trenches.”

Andrew Schwartz.portraitAndrew B. Schwartz

Andrew B. Schwartz, a neurobiology faculty member in the School of Medicine, is being recognized as a senior scholar.

The award letter notes that Schwartz is “internationally recognized in the field of neural engineering and one of the foremost experts on neural control of movement with brain computer interfaces.

“The selection committee was deeply impressed with how you and your team demonstrated the most successful use to date by a quadriplegic subject of a mind-controlled prosthetic arm and hand.”

The letter says that the award selection committee also noted several of Schwartz’s major contributions to the field of neurobiology: the pioneering use of population activity as a method for decoding movement trajectories; the neurophysiological study of 3-D movements; the use of virtual reality as an environment for studying behavior in awake monkeys, and chronic multi-electrode recording from the cerebral cortex.

—Marty Levine