Excellence recognized: Presidential Awards recognize three for leadership, teaching
Monday, April 20, 2020
MANHATTAN — Excellence and dedication are earning a Kansas State University department head, horticulture teacher and biochemistry graduate teaching assistant the university's 2020 Presidential awards.
Michael Young, professor and head of the psychological sciences department, is the recipient of the Presidential Award for Outstanding Department Head. Chad Miller, associate professor of horticulture and natural resources, and Ashish Kumar, doctoral student in biochemistry, are recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
Each award includes a $5,000 honorarium sponsored by the university president's office and Curtin Property Company, a real estate development firm with offices in Manhattan and Kansas City.
"Over a quarter-century ago, the Curtin Property Company founded a unique partnership with the Kansas State University president. The goal was to create a special focus on excellence among K-State's outstanding faculty and leaders," said Chris Curtin, company president. "At the donor's request, the Presidential Awards of Excellence name was selected, and the program has since honored scores of extraordinary teachers and leaders changing the lives of their students and illuminating the spirit of excellence of the K-State faculty. The Curtin Property Company, its numerous K-State graduates and its Manhattan associates at Georgetown Apartment Homes and Westchester Park Apartments are pleased to honor the 2020 Presidential Awards of Excellence winners."
Young joined K-State in 2012 as head of the psychological sciences department. Under his leadership, the department has thrived in teaching, research and more. The department's extramural funding has increased significantly, including landing a $10.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health's COBRE program to establish the Cognitive and Neurological Approaches to Plasticity research center. To encourage teaching and research excellence by the department's graduate students, Young helped increase stipends for graduate teaching and research assistants, and he helped create new awards to recognize excellence in these areas by graduate students.
Supporting faculty is a big part of Young's job. He helps mentor the department's new tenure-track faculty. Several psychological sciences faculty members have earned major university awards for their work under Young's leadership, including the Coffman Chair for Distinguished Teaching Scholars, Presidential Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the Commerce Bank and W.T. Kemper Foundation awards for Distinguished Graduate Faculty and Outstanding Teaching. Refurbishing the department's classrooms and reception areas also have been a Young priority.
Young credits his success as a department head to building trust with faculty, staff and students.
"I work hard to be approachable, which helps me to react quickly to issues as they arise," Young said. "I also strive to be fair and supportive. Building on a culture of trust makes it easier to sustain excellent teaching and research activity because the faculty know that my goal is to support their success."
With the university's switch to remote operations, Young has made it a point to be accessible.
"The past few weeks have been especially challenging for me because a key part of my success is checking in regularly with the younger and pre-tenure faculty who may be reticent to just pop into the department head's office," he said. "I use synchronous Zoom meetings with faculty, rely on email when I must, and even pick up the phone for the occasional chat with a faculty member — an exceedingly rare event before the pandemic."
Miller enjoys teaching — and it shows. Since joining K-State in 2011, he has won several major national honors for his teaching, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Agricultural Sciences New Teacher Award, North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Educator Award, and the American Public and Land-Grant Universities' inaugural Innovative Teaching Award. He also has earned university, college and departmental awards for teaching, advising and service.
Along with teaching seven horticulture courses each year, Miller advises around 30 horticulture students and is co-advisor to the Horticulture Club and advises the Pi Alpha Xi chapter, the honor society for horticulture.
"I have always liked learning and enjoy assisting others in their learning pursuits," Miller said. "It is very rewarding to get to know my students and see their progress over the course of a semester and their time at K-State, especially since I have the opportunity to interact with the students in multiple courses and as advisees. Another great enjoyment about teaching is that I am continually learning about the discipline, learning new techniques and methods to incorporate into the classroom to ideally assist in my teaching abilities."
With the switch to remote learning, Miller said communication and flexibility have been key in helping his students adjust to the change.
"I created some simple activities to assist students with the transition to the online/remote teaching platform," he said. "I also work to maintain my excitement and genuine interest and passion for horticulture in the course content. I am working to incorporate a variety of activities and methods for presenting materials and for evaluation so things do not become too mundane, with the goal of keeping my students engaged."
Kumar has been a graduate teaching assistant for the biochemistry and molecular biophysics department since 2016 and consistently earns high marks from students for his teaching. Courses he has been involved with include General Biochemistry Lab and Introduction to Organic and Biochemistry, both of which serve 50 or more students each semester. He is in charge of ensuring the lab courses have the appropriate equipment and materials. He also has created a new experiment for the General Biochem Lab course based on his own research findings.
"Apart from concentrating on giving lectures, demonstrating labs, quizzes, etc., I try to create that kind of environment in the class where all the students can know each other more than just by their names," Kumar said. "And when this happens, interactive sessions with students become so fruitful. For me, this is the most enjoyable part about teaching."
Kumar was prepared for the recent switch to remote learning. A few years ago, he was in charge of taping lectures and creating video primers on lab experiments to make the General Biochemistry Lab course a K-State Online offering.
His work as a teacher and researcher has impressed Phil Klebba, university distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics. Kumar is a member of Klebba's lab and has served as a GTA for Klebba several times.
"Over the past few years, partly because of his GTA activities, Ashish has become expert in many fundamental areas of biochemistry," Klebba said. "This expertise makes him both an insightful researcher and a highly competent teacher of undergraduate students."
Kumar was recently selected as one of K-State's top graduate researchers and presented his work at the 17th annual Capitol Graduate Research Summit in Topeka. His poster presentation on his work to develop fluorescent molecular sensors for the sensitive detection of important bacterial byproducts or metabolitesearned Kumar a $500 scholarship.
For his teaching and his research, the biochemistry and molecular biophysics department has recognized Kumar with its Charlie Hedgcoth Jr. and Phillip Nordin Graduate Memorial awards for Excellence in Graduate Research Teaching and Excellence in Graduate Research.
Kumar plans to complete his doctoral studies in fall 2020 and would like to work as a postdoctoral fellow in the next stage of his research career.