UChicago announces 2024 winners of Quantrell and PhD Teaching Awards

The transformative education offered at the University of Chicago begins in the classroom, with the teachers who inspire, engage and inform their students. 

UChicago annually recognizes faculty for their incredible teaching and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students through the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards, believed to be the nation’s oldest prize for undergraduate teaching; and the Faculty Awards for Excellence in PhD Teaching and Mentoring, which honor faculty for their work with graduate students.

Learn more about this year’s recipients below:

Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards

Fred Chong, the Seymour Goodman Professor in the Department of Computer Science

Fred Chong’s love of computer science started at an early age, when he immersed himself in the “power of creation” possible with coding. 

As an undergraduate student at MIT, where he completed his graduate education, he was captivated by computer architecture, recognizing how the intricate design of the underlying machinery—composed of wires and transistors—enabled the execution of digital logic essential for powering his creations.

In a graduate course on silicon chip design, he gained insight into the construction and spatial arrangement of these components, understanding their impact on performance, cost, and energy consumption.

“It turns out that this spatial view of technology gives the core intuition of why even today's machine designs have a certain speed, cost, and energy consumption – essentially, the smaller the better,” he said. 

He now teaches Quantum Computer Systems and Computer Architecture, and has taught Honors Introduction to Computer Science. The University of Chicago marks Chong’s third institution as an instructor, and while he has cherished each experience thus far, he said the learning environment at UChicago is unique.

“The truly exceptional and curious students, coupled with small class sizes, allow me to go deeper into very advanced topics,” Chong said. “Perhaps my favorite part comes from student questions. After 28 years of teaching, I can still get questions that surprise me and make me rethink some of the fundamentals of my field.”

Chong’s courses and research are centrally about understanding the trends in technology and shaping the future of computing. On the last day of class, he typically gives a lecture on some of these trends, and some of the more visionary ideas emerging in the future. 

“For the last 10 years or so, this last lecture has focused a bit on quantum computing, which could potentially solve problems that are unsolvable by classical computers,” he said. “If I were to distill this down to a message, it would be to "think outside of the box and be open to what is currently impossible.”

Anton Ford, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy

When Anton Ford was in high school, he found a steamer trunk in the basement of his house that contained his parents’ books from college. He spread them on the floor and took the most appealing for himself. 

As he recalls, the trunk had a wide variety of books: novels, poetry, history and sociology books, political texts and philosophy books. He said he remembers reading some Platonic dialogues, and developing an interest in Emerson and Nieztsche. 

“My tastes have matured,” he said. “But that was my first encounter with philosophy, on the floor of the basement of my childhood home. The trunk itself came to have a sentimental value for me. I brought it with me to college, then to graduate school, and then to my first job, here, at the University of Chicago.”  

Ford joined the faculty at UChicago in 2007, and is now an associate professor in philosophy with areas of special interest in Anscombe, Aristotle and Marx. In his classroom, Ford's approach aligns closely with the UChicago ethos of teaching how to think, not what to think. 

On the last day of class, he said he hopes his students will leave not so much with a message as with a set of intellectual tools for thinking about the world they will be stepping into. 

“The philosophers whose work I tend to teach are systematic thinkers,” he said. “One thing about a system of thought is that it can help one to see the connection between things. Another is that it provides one with intellectual orientation in an infinite variety of new circumstances.”

Through his teaching, Ford aims to empower his students to navigate a transitional phase in their lives with clarity and purpose. 

“College is a pivotal moment in life, a point between academic and professional paths,” he said. “Depending on who one happens to meet, what interests one develops, what one encounters in class, what is happening in the world—and much else—one’s future trajectory could change very radically. Not every period of life is like that. Nothing in particular follows from the fact that this is a pivotal moment. But the fact is worth bearing in mind.”

Michele Friedner, Professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development

On her first day of class as an undergraduate in an introduction to Indian religions course, Michele Friedner’s professor insisted that her students look closely at the craters on the moon, and identify the shape of a rabbit — and that they had to keep looking for it until they found it. 

The professor used this tactic to encourage her students to try to see things differently from how they appear at surface level, and it resonated with Friedner. 

“I loved looking for the rabbit and then finally finding it,” she said. “I never look at the moon the same way anymore. And this is what I want my students to do, too – to learn different ways of seeing and experiencing taken-for-granted objects, processes and practices.”

Now a professor of comparative human development in the College, Friedner said she is not afraid to emulate that same level of “playfulness” when interacting with her students.  

“Often, I ask a question that I have not fully formed and that I am still thinking through. I want them to be able to articulate things that are not fully formed while also being aware of the stakes of what we are reading and discussing,” she said.

Friedner teaches courses in disability anthropology and sensory anthropology, as well as classes in the Self, Culture and Society Core sequence. She also teaches a course in the “Big Problems” Curriculum, elective capstone experiences designated for third- and fourth-year students, alongside Jennifer Iverson in the Department of Music, called “Disability and Design” The course involves working with scholars and activists at the forefront of its eponymous fields. 

For their final projects, students design a fully accessible policy, playground, restaurant, job interview guide, children’s book and more. Friedner says the course is “wonderful and invigorating” to teach.

“I love teaching disability studies-related courses at UChicago because the students are genuinely excited to consider questions and theories around disability and to grapple with complex embodiments,” she said. “They especially find it useful to reflect upon their own experiences at UChicago and beyond through the lens of disability theory.”

Nicholas Hatsopoulos, Professor in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy

Nicholas Hatsopoulos teaches a course titled "Neuroscience of Consciousness," delving into a subject that has intrigued him since his undergraduate days, when he minored in philosophy. 

He has always been fascinated by questions surrounding free will, which propelled him into this field of study. Though consciousness is not his primary area of research as a neuroscience professor, Hatsopoulos said he finds immense joy in engaging with his students and the lively discussions that ensue during his lectures. 

“I love the interactions I have with the students and all the questions they ask during my lectures,” he said. “The students here are really smart and inquisitive. They genuinely want to learn and not just get a good grade."

Hatsopoulos fosters an environment of active participation in his classroom. He encourages interruptions and questions, believing that dialogue is essential for deep learning. If he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he is not afraid to say he doesn’t know but says he’ll try to get an answer by the next class.

He assigns students the task of critiquing two papers they read each week, promptly discussing some of the submissions in the following class. Throughout the course, debates on consciousness-related topics stimulate further exploration and critical thinking.

“I want them to interrupt me and ask questions,” he said. "The message I give them at the beginning of the course is telling them that we won't ultimately answer the question as to how consciousness arises from the brain, but hopefully they will learn about some of the experiments and theories and learn some neuroscience in the process.”

Chris Kennedy, Professor in the Department of Linguistics

Chris Kennedy, who has been teaching linguistics at UChicago for nearly 20 years, wasn’t planning to become a linguist. 

“I was living in Austin, Texas, playing bass in a punk band,” he remembers. “I had a horrible case of poison ivy one summer and was stuck inside. I asked my now wife/then girlfriend to grab me a book by Noam Chomsky from the Austin Public Library. She brought me a copy of ‘Syntactic Structures,’ and I was hooked.”

In the Department of Linguistics, Kennedy teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in semantics and pragmatics, and the occasional course in syntax. He also helped design and is the faculty director for the new cognitive science major, for which he teaches the two foundational courses alongside instructors in the Psychology Department. He also teaches in the Philosophical Perspectives humanities sequence.

Kennedy says he appreciates UChicago students’ passion for the “acquisition of knowledge,” which he incorporates into his own teaching approach.

“I like to approach my classes with the idea that I am learning the material alongside the students, approaching it from a position of discovery rather than presenting it from a position of authority,” said Kennedy. “Much of the time, this is literally true, because I've found that the best way for me to really understand new ideas, especially from areas outside my own expertise, is by working through them in a classroom full of University of Chicago students. And even when I teach a class on something I’m very familiar with, I like to start from some basic assumptions and then, together with the students, build up the theory from scratch.”

Kennedy threw himself into new material as an undergraduate student and said his curiosity has been a major influence in his career. He recalls coursework in religion and archeology, as well as his primary undergraduate major in Russian language and literature, as formative educational experiences even though they were quite different from the field he works in today.

“Whenever a student asks me what they should study, I say: ‘It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you find the best teachers, and do different things,’” he said. 

Faculty Awards for Excellence in PhD Teaching and Mentoring

Marcus Clark, Professor in the Department of Medicine

Marcus Clark is fond of telling people that he loves his work. “My job is really an amalgam of hobbies, the things that I like to do. I just happen to get paid for them.”

As chief of the Section of Rheumatology in the Department of Medicine and director of the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), an NIH-funded training program that pairs medical degrees with PhDs in the biological or physical sciences, he has his hands full. But rather than embracing the role of an administrator, he prefers a hands-on approach to mentoring the next generation of physician-scientists.

“I really get to know each incoming class, what they’re interested in and what their strengths are. I think that the personal touch elevates you from being just an administrator and shows them how to work like a scientist,” he said.

Clark individually mentors, advises and counsels each of the roughly 80 students in the MSTP, making a point to meet them where they are and challenging them to reach their potential how they define it—not according to a predetermined plan. He provides guidance, but not solutions—a “teach a man to fish” philosophy that makes students feel empowered in their career choices. He credits this ability to having been there before, building his own career researching immune system functions and treating patients with psoriatic arthritis and lupus.

“I think I have a good sense of where a student needs to be and how their personal journey can get them there,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done enough in my own career that I can give the students a little bit more space and think about them more. It helps me be like a proud dad in a way. I just want to see them do well.”

Mikhail Golosov, the Homer J. Livingston Professor in Economics and the College

As a graduate student, Mikhail Golosov remembers having tea with his advisor, economist Larry Jones, after a particularly brutal presentation. They talked for hours. As Golosov calmed down, he was able to spot the weaknesses in his research. 

“Now, it's probably one of my most famous papers,” Golosov said. “For me, that focus on well-being played a huge role in graduate school.”

Using his own mentors as a model, Golosov’s approach to advising is twofold—guiding students through difficult research questions as well as helping manage the anxieties that might crop up because of them.

“When you start, there is so much uncertainty,” Golosov said. “You don’t know much about research; you don’t know if you’re good at it.”

After taking Golosov’s public finance course, one student was inspired to pursue a related research topic using an unfamiliar methodology.

“Without Mikhail Golosov’s patience, guidance and intelligence, I could not have pursued this project,” the student wrote. “He carefully considers each and every question without prejudice, demystifies the process of research and expresses empathy on its exciting, but frightening uncertainties."

As director of Graduate Studies, Golosov meets with student representatives from each Ph.D. cohort to hear their concerns. If he has the power to make students’ experiences better, Golosov simply will—whether that’s arranging for an accommodation or mediating between faculty and students. 

“There are little things we can do that don’t require that much effort that could improve the life of graduate students a lot,” Golosov said. “Whenever I come across them, it gives me a lot of satisfaction.” 

“It is rare for a scholar of his stature to demonstrate such a deep commitment to each student's success,” wrote another student. “My growth as an economist and as a member of the academic community is largely attributable to Mike’s influence.”

Sidney Nagel, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor of Physics and the College

In Sidney Nagel’s laboratory, graduate students are learning to be physicists—to ask a question about the world no one has yet been able to answer, and then design a way to answer it. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding.

“I want to make sure they understand that doing physics is hard, but that it’s also hard for me, even as long as I’ve been doing it,” Nagel said. “To fight through the ideas to get something crisp and clean at the end is a challenge every time. But we are working on these things together.”

The “joy of common striving,” as Nagel puts it, is the theme that runs through the lab. A former student wrote that Nagel, and other more experienced Ph.D. students in the laboratory, “readily dedicated hours to guide and help me…The sense of support and collaboration permeates the Nagel group completely, out of genuine kindness and alignment of curiosity.”

Among the communal lab activities is something that Nagel believes in deeply: the value of learning to articulate a scientific problem. “That is, can you frame a vision about why this problem is important, why it’s worth doing and where it can lead?” Nagel said.

As members of Nagel’s laboratory transform from students to scientists, each learns how to present this vision through intensive coaching and group feedback.

“When I started grad school, I had no experience in giving scientific presentations, had very limited public speaking skills as a non-native English speaker, and did not enjoy presenting my work to people,” wrote another former student. “He is single-handedly responsible for making me a decent public speaker who loves giving talks.”

Another former student agreed: “He taught me to see the beauty in science, and to share my joy at understanding it with the world.”

Miwa Yasui, Associate Professor in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice

Described by her students and colleagues as an “exceptional,” “creative,” and “devoted lifelong mentor,” Miwa Yasui is a passionate educator whose deep commitment to teaching and student development has made a profound impact at the Crown Family School.    

Recognizing that the academic life of a social scientist is never a solitary one, Yasui believes that learning is best cultivated in an environment that fosters collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

“Social sciences is something that you can never do on your own. It requires an entire team of great minds to come together. I’m very grateful for leading the team of students in my research lab from whom I have come to learn about their own interests and journeys, seeing especially how they would continue their intellectual trajectories,” she said.

Her pedagogy is also characterized by an empathetic listening that takes into account the diverse perspectives and lived experiences of her students, often reflected in their classroom discussions. 

It is no wonder that she is well-loved among students in her department for being compassionate and attentive to their scholarly and emotional needs. 

“Prof. Yasui has provided time and space to empathetically listen to my personal experience, inquire about my family and loved ones and mentor me on the importance of care. I cannot thank her enough for that,” a Crown Family School student said.

Having lived in different countries such as Japan, England, Singapore, and the United States, Yasui is deeply sensitive to the ways in which our human behavior, values, and beliefs are determined by cultural influences. Her research focuses on the intersection between race, culture, and immigration in the context of child development and family processes, and how they contribute to racial disparities in mental health.

Yasui’s conviction for her students is that they will not only become innovative leaders in social work but, more importantly, that their scholarship will also transform the lives of the vulnerable and marginalized.

As a former student gratefully expressed: “Notably, she believed in me.”

—With contributions by Andy Brown, Meredith Davis, Tori Lee, Louise Lerner and Matt Wood.