Exceptional faculty

Each year, the University of Utah recognizes the achievements of members of its faculty. This year’s honorees include:

Distinguished Teaching Awards

Cynthia Furse

Associate Vice President for Research

Professor, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering

College of Engineering

“Dr. Furse is the most outstanding and exceptional professor that I have ever known, for many reasons. … She is a true teacher with a heart of gold and level of dedication to her students and discipline that I have never seen before or since,” said one nominator. “Dr. Furse demonstrates true concern for and a sincere interest in her students. In fact, anyone who regularly passes Dr. Furse’s office, located in the Merrill Engineering Building, knows that a crowd of students is often found outside her door. These students know that Dr. Furse spends countless hours giving direction and encouragement, and she gives this time freely and without reservation. I personally know how grateful many of these students are for her dedicated service and mentoring. Friends of mine have often said things like, ‘She is probably the best person I know.’ This statement exemplifies how her students feel about her.” Furse is particularly well known as an early pioneer of the Flipped Classroom, which uses pre-class video lectures to enable and fully utilize in-class active learning. All of her course materials are freely available and are used by faculty around the world. She began developing and experimenting with this method in 2007, one of the first university faculty in the country to do so, and has mentored and trained over 2,700 faculty throughout the state, country and world in this method. Furse has also led two major NSF projects that have had major impacts on her department and college.

Gernot Laicher

Professor/Lecturer, Department of Physics & Astronomy

College of Science

“[Laicher] is one of the most effective lecturers I have had the pleasure of taking a course from. His ability to not only understand the questions that we had in each activity but to anticipate difficulties we may encounter based on his experience and to expertly explain how to circumvent them was amazing. Prof. Laicher also shines in his mentoring of students outside of the classroom proper,” said one nominator. “He is very clearly concerned with all of his students and is readily available to answer questions and provide guidance outside of the classroom. Importantly, he has served as a fantastic mentor to me and other teaching assistants, giving us excellent guidance in running our labs. He has been a model template for the development of my own teaching style. Simply put, Prof. Laicher is one of the best instructors I have had in my graduate career, one whose instruction has had the most direct effect upon both my work and my teaching ethic. I cannot think of anyone more deserving to be recognized for this work than him.” Laicher has been teaching continuously for 20 years at the U, with his primary teaching responsibilities being in connection with undergraduate and graduate laboratory courses, several of which he designed himself. “Because of his past research involvement, he has a keen sense of what is required for students to learn in these lab courses in order to successfully make the transition to productive research,” said other nominators.

Armando Solórzano

Associate Professor, Division of Ethnic Studies

School for Cultural and Social Transformation

Associate Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies

College of Social and Behavioral Science

“Striking lucidity graces the savvy, even the elegance, of the passion of Professor Armando Solorzano. Armando is that rare academic who would make the thickest of claims seem vivid, of-the-moment, and thus inviting of student engagement. Armando, if anyone, could spawn an activist out of his labors of analyzing issues,” said one nominator. “In short, he is among the U’s most dedicated, visionary pedagogues, with a clear sense of what he would accomplish, even concerning several domains (immigration, patterns of educational segregation, indigenous spirituality, and families of diverse backgrounds). He is a conceptual theoretical populist.” Solorzano has taught at the U for 29 years in both Ethnic Studies and Family & Consumer Studies. He advocates for minority students and the inclusion of diversity issues in curriculum across the U. Solorzano involves both undergraduate and graduate students in his research projects, empowering them to bring their skills and interests to social justice issues. “Armando’s ability to motivate student learning and his concern for students’ wider education is seen all around our community, in our civic leaders who were students of Armando’s and are now leaders in our community, fighting for social justice, being role models and implementing the lessons learned from Armando,” said another nominator. “For example, Angela Romero now represents District 26 in the Utah House of Representatives and focuses her legislative work on issues supporting families.”

Seetha Veeraghanta

Professor/Lecturer, LEAP Academic Learning Communities

Office of Undergraduate Studies

“The mark of an exceptional teacher is the impact they have on students beyond the classroom,” said one nominator. “ Last year, Dr. Veeraghanta’s impact on her students was exemplified when a former student (from about 10 years prior) returned to provide a donation to a student scholarship for undocumented students. He was an undocumented student; he told the story of how he had dropped out of school because of financial demands, family demands, and stresses on his life. He felt he wasn’t able to continue and just stopped attending class. Dr. Veeraghanta reached out to him after he stopped coming to class and was able to provide him support and connect him to resources that enabled him to return to school the subsequent semester and eventually graduate. He pointed to her support as the factor that enabled him to be successful.” One important role Veeraghanta plays is in the U’s Transforming Classrooms into Inclusive Communities program (TCIC). Through TCIC, she provides trainings to programs and departments on campus on such topics as how to facilitate post-election classroom conversation, transforming difficult conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and uncovering hidden biases and micro-aggressions in the classroom. As one nominator put it, “This is yet another example of the impact she has had across the university on curriculum and how she mentors not just students, but faculty as well.”

Cecilia Wainryb

Professor, Department of Psychology

College of Social and Behavioral Science

“Over the past 25 years of teaching at the University of Utah, Dr. Wainryb has transformed the lives of many students who have been fortunate enough to have her as an instructor. The skill in which she guides students during self-reflective learning requires a strong, patient, and supportive hand,” said one nominator. “Dr. Wainryb has managed to master this approach to the benefit of our students and the broader institution as a whole.” Wainryb teaches the core, foundational courses in childhood/adolescent development along with culture, peace and conflict and developmental theories. Her research focuses on the cognitive, emotional and social-cultural processes that give rise to personal growth. “It is important to point out that Dr. Wainryb has been an active and effective teacher in the international community. She helped in the development of the Peace and Conflict Studies degree at the University of Utah. Dr. Wainryb also has a strong commitment to supporting instructors and researchers in Latin American countries (e.g., Argentina, Colombia) which have been marked by war and political violence. Given the financial burden and lack of resources that many Latin American scholars face, she regularly travels to Argentina and Colombia to teach the latest theory, method, and statistical models (free of charge) that can facilitate their academic growth,” said another nominator. “I consider Dr. Wainryb’s international teaching especially important given its incredible impact on young scholars and because it extends far beyond our typical academic responsibilities.”

Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Awards

Mladen Bestvina

Distinguished Professor, Department of Mathematics

College of Science

“Mladen has been at Utah since arriving here from a tenured position at UCLA in 1993. He is a world-renowned mathematician and is one of only two members of the Utah Mathematics Department to have been invited to lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians, held every four years and one of the most significant honors a mathematician can receive. He has also given many distinguished named lecture series (including at Yale and the University of Chicago). He is well known not only for the importance of his mathematical results but for introducing fundamentally new ideas which have transformed the field,” said one nominator.

“In addition to his excellent work in the field, he has been an extensive promoter of the field and its problems. This is not only through advising many students over the years, but also mentoring postdocs and organizing many conferences and programs around the topic of geometric group theory. …I regard Mladen as one of the top people in the area of geometric group theory,” said another nominator.

Lisa M. Diamond

Professor, Department of Psychology

College of Social and Behavioral Science

Professor, Division of Gender Studies

School for Cultural and Social Transformation

“[Lisa Diamond] is creative and brilliant as a researcher, theoretician, writer, and teacher. Dr. Diamond’s creativity allows her to see an unmet need in a field, craft a research design to meet that need (even if it means learning a new area of research for herself) and pull together a research team who can carry out the research. She has that rare ability to uncover a crucial question that involves the nexus of several established disciplines and address it in a way that transforms a field. Her research questions are complex, address crucial theoretical questions, and have enormous practical import. In addition, she is one of the most gifted instructors we have ever seen, with a passion that is infectious for anyone fortunate enough to be a student or colleague of hers,” said one nominator. “Dr. Diamond’s body of research includes notable contributions to understanding the development of sexuality and sexual orientation, the psychobiology of attachment, and the influence of early experience on later social and sexual development. In each of these lines of research, she is truly brilliant! Dr. Diamond is well-known for her long-term longitudinal research on the development of female sexuality, which has substantially influenced scientific thinking on the nature and development sexual orientation by demonstrating that long-term fluctuations in sexual identity, attraction, and behavior are normative rather than exceptional.”

Feng Liu

Professor and Chair, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

College of Engineering

“Since joining University of Utah in 2000, Prof. Feng Liu has developed into one of the world’s leading experts in the fields of surface science and epitaxial growth of thin films, and the theory of nanostructures, graphene and topological materials. He won the prestigious Senior Humboldt Award in 2008 citing: ‘His work pioneered our understanding of the atomistic mechanisms underlying epitaxial growth of thin films and semiconductor nanostructures.’ In 2011, Prof. Liu was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society, based on: ‘His contribution to theory of nanostructures and strain-induced nanoscale Self-assembly.’ In recent years, he pioneered the fields of organic and surface-based topological materials,” said one nominator. “Prof. Liu has been running an active and well-funded research program which has become one of the largest in the College of Engineering (the group reached 20 people at one point). His research has been steadily supported by federal agencies (DOE, NSF and DOD), the State of Utah and industry. He is among the few people who has been simultaneously funded for two separate DOE-BES core programs, ‘Materials Synthesis and Processing’ and ‘Physical behavior of Materials’ (funded continuously so far for 20 years with an annual budget of $300K).”

Valeria Molinero

Professor, Department of Chemistry

College of Science

“Since Professor Molinero joined the Department of Chemistry as Assistant Professor in 2006, she has developed a thriving research program in physical and materials chemistry, with foci on elucidating the phase behavior of water and its impact on atmospheric processes, and the design of new materials for energy and cryopreservation. Professor Molinero’s ground breaking research at the University of Utah has already resulted in over 290 presentations at conferences, universities, and research institutions all over the world (110 of them by students and postdocs of Molinero), and 95 journal articles—including three in Nature—that have gathered almost five thousand citations,” said one nominator. “Professor Molinero’s work is a hallmark of what research and scholarship at our University should be about. In her 12 years of independent research, she has made an indelible mark in several fundamental areas of physical and computational chemistry, with implications that extend to atmospheric sciences and the design of materials for energy and catalysis. Professor Molinero is a leader in the Chemistry and Physics communities. She is the Vice-chair and Chair-elect of the Theory subdivision of the American Chemical Society, member of the nominating committee of the Division of Chemical Physics of the American Physical Society, member of the Board of Managers of the American Institute of Physics Publishing, the Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of Chemical Physics and of The Journal of Physical Chemistry, has been on the selection committee of major awards by the American Chemical Society…”

Distinguished Faculty Service Award

J. Steven Ott

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science

Director, Institute of Public & International Affairs

College of Social and Behavioral Science

Since arriving at the University of Utah in 1992, Ott has worked tirelessly as what he calls “a pracademic,” bringing theory and practice together in ways the benefit students and the community. He used more than two decades of experience as an implementing consultant in public health, human services, and bilingual-bicultural education to form the foundation of his scholarly work. His passion for community and academics has been coupled ever since. By giving generously of his own time, Ott forms strategic partnerships that benefit his students. He has served extensively in organizations like the Utah Nonprofits Association (UNA) and the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). He created the Practitioner Advisory Council (PRAC) to link business leaders, U students, and government representatives in order to identify internship placements, volunteer opportunities and classroom visits by alumni and others involved in addressing important community issues. Ott arranges for MPA students to volunteer at UNA conferences, as well as Utah League of Cities and Towns conferences, to foster their connections to community leaders. He encourages students to join the American Society for Public Administration, specifically the Utah chapter, to prepare them for future leadership and service opportunities. Ott continues to mentor his students even after they graduate, arranging coffee meetings or lunches several times each month, providing them opportunities to continue their education long after graduation.

Calvin S. and JeNeal N. Hatch Prize in Teaching

Joel M. Harris

Distinguished Professor, Department of Chemistry

College of Science


“Joel is an absolutely first-rate analytical chemist who loves to teach undergraduates, and he is immensely skillful at this art! In his more than 4 decades of teaching analytical chemistry at the University of Utah, he has distinguished himself as an engaging educator and scholar. He is a compassionate and challenging teacher who puts the interests of students and their education first. Prof. Harris has taught Quantitative Chemical Analysis, Chemistry 3000 (a requirement for all majors), and Advanced Analytical Chemistry Lab (Chemistry 5700) to thousands of students since he first created these courses 40 years ago. To countless undergraduates and former TAs, Joel is well known as a lab rat,” said one nominator. “While you can occasionally find him in his office doing paperwork, he is most often in the research and teaching lab guiding students in the best ways to do an experiment. He is best known for a hands-on approach to undergraduate laboratory courses, in which students work on independent projects, asking scientific questions of their own choosing, exploring the literature to identify the best methods of analysis, and conducting experiments to solve real-world problems. Joel works one-on-one with the students in Chemistry 3000 to help them be innovative in their exploration of what’s in the world around us, leading to a capstone signature experience for our undergraduate students. This course is considered as one of the most challenging in our undergraduate curriculum, but recent comments from course evaluations indicate that it is one of the best experiences at the University, reflecting the dedication, enthusiasm and skill that Joel has brought to undergraduate education, both in the classroom and the lab.”

Community Engaged Teaching & Scholarship Award

Yda J. Smith

Associate Professor/Lecturer, Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies

College of Health

“Since 2004, Dr. Smith has been supervising Level I and Level II Fieldwork occupational therapy students to provide life skills training for adaptation to life in the US for recent immigrants and former refugees. While working with members of the Karen community at the University Neighborhood Partners-Hartland Partnership Center in 2007, Dr. Smith began to establish relationships with members of the Karen community that have continued to today and will likely continue long into the future,” said one nominator.  “In 2008, she joined a small group of members of the University of Utah community and traveled to the Thai-Burma border to visit a refugee camp to learn about the experiences of the Karen in the camps. She used this information to inform programming for former refugees at the Hartland Partnership, in local public schools, and other settings. Since then she has traveled back to the camps five times as part of the University of Utah Bridging Borders program, providing education in the camps as well as gathering information to share with members of the Karen community in Utah and her university students.”

Distinguished Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Mentor Award

Amy M. Barrios

Professor, Department of Medicinal Chemistry

College of Pharmacy

Joseph Yost

Vice-Chair, Basic Science Research, Department of Pediatrics

Professor, Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy

School of Medicine

David Chikao Young

Professor, Department of Pharmacotherapy (Clinical)

College of Pharmacy

Distinguished Professors

Marjorie A. Chan

Distinguished Professor, Department of Geology & Geophysics

College of Mines and Earth Sciences


Vincent Cheng

Distinguished Professor, Department of English

College of Humanities

Charles Hansen

Distinguished Professor, School of Computing

College of Engineering


Mary Elizabeth Hartnett

Distinguished Professor, Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences

School of Medicine

Janice Morse

Distinguished Professor, College of Nursing


Marouf Hasian, Jr.

Distinguished Professor, Department of Communication

College of Humanities


Honors Professor 

Martha Bradley-Evans

Professor, School of Architecture

College of Architecture + Planning


Public Service Professor

Sara E. Hart

Associate Professor

College of Nursing

University Professor (two-year term: 2018 to 2020)

Sarah Projansky
Professor, Department of Film and Media Arts
College of Fine Arts
Professor, Gender Studies Program
School for Cultural and Social Transformation

Outstanding Public School Teacher

Awbree Opel Summers

Department Chair of Special Education

Alta High School

Canyons School District