Chancellor Nordenberg Names Winners of Distinguished Teaching, Research, and Public Service Awards

Issue Date: 
February 20, 2012

Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg has announced the winners of the 2012 Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching, Research, and Public Service Awards.

The following five Pitt faculty members will receive the 2012 Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award:

Alice M. Blazeck, assistant professor and vice chair for administration in the Department of Acute and Tertiary Care within the School of Nursing;

Jason J. Dechant, instructor and course developer in the School of Nursing’s Department of Health Promotion and Development;

Prakash Mirchandani, professor of business administration in the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration;

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

Manuel C. Vallejo, professor of anesthesiology and director of obstetric anesthesia within the School of Medicine.

The following six Pitt faculty members have been named recipients of the 2012 Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award:

Yuan Chang, professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology and codirector of the Tumor Virology Lab in the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), and Patrick Moore, professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Medical Genetics, director of the Cancer Virology Program, and codirector of the Tumor Virology Lab, both within UPCI, who will share one award;

Brent Doiron, assistant professor in the Dietrich School’s Department of Mathematics;

Steven Little, assistant professor and Bicentennial Alumni Faculty Fellow in the Departments of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and of Bioengineering in the Swanson School, in the School of Medicine’s Department of Immunology, and in the Pitt-UPMC McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine;

Eric Moe, professor of music in the Dietrich School and codirector of Pitt’s Music on the Edge; and

William Wagner, interim director of the Pitt-UPMC McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine as well as a professor of surgery in the Pitt School of Medicine and of bioengineering and chemical engineering in the Swanson School.

Chang, Moore, Moe, and Wagner are being honored in the senior scholar category, which recognizes “an outstanding and continuing record of research and scholarly activity,” while Doiron and Little are being honored in the junior scholar category.

The three winners of the 2012 Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Service Awards (pictured on page 4) are:

Diego G. Chaves-Gnecco, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine, and a developmental-behavioral pediatrician in the Division of General Academic Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC;

David Y. Miller, professor and director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs; and

Edward K. Muller, professor in the Department of History within the Dietrich School.

Each awardee will receive a $2,000 cash prize and a $3,000 grant for the support of his or her teaching or research. The awardees will be recognized during Pitt’s 36th annual Honors Convocation on Friday, Feb. 24, and their names also will be inscribed on plaques to be displayed in the William Pitt Union.

Distinguished Teaching Award

Blazeck was recognized for her development of innovative teaching methods in the School of Nursing. “Your educational expertise, recognized by your 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 educational conferences,” Nordenberg wrote in a Feb. 6 letter informing Blazeck of her award, adding that “you have influenced positively the development of nursing students and helped prepare them to become admirable clinicians. As evident from your excellent student evaluations, your commitment to teaching and creating engaging learning situations in your classroom is well appreciated by your students.” Pitt alumnus Blazeck (NURS ’75) was also named the 2011 Nightingale Award Winner for Nursing Education by the Nightingale Awards of Pennsylvania, a statewide nonprofit foundation that recognizes leaders in the medical profession.

The chancellor, in his Feb. 6 letter informing Dechant of his award, praised the instructor for his impact on the teaching mission of the School of Nursing. “You have revised the anatomy and physiology curriculum, introducing an innovative two-semester model that integrates technology with more traditional educational methods,” Nordenberg wrote. Dechant, in his dossier submitted for the award judging panel, said he works hard to gain students’ interest. One example of this is bringing fresh sheep lungs into class and inflating them during his lecture on the respiratory system. Students also do a wide variety of hands-on learning activities utilizing cadaveric materials. The chancellor noted that Dechant’s student evaluations reflected his engaging teaching style that is adapted to attract the attention of each student and optimize learning in the classroom. In 2004, Dechant received the School of Nursing Dean’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

Mirchandani was selected to receive the award because his “innovative experience-based teaching methods prepare MBA students for real-world situations by developing the skills needed to be leaders in organizations,” the chancellor wrote in his notification letter. Since joining the Katz Graduate School of Business in 1989, Mirchandani teaches primarily in Katz’s full-time MBA program, but he also teaches in the part-time and Executive MBA programs. In his dossier presented to the award judging panel, Mirchandani outlined his carefully thought-out strategies for teaching complex subjects as well as his method of using board games, simulation, and role-playing to help students learn. He has received the full-time MBA program’s Outstanding Professor of the Year award nine times and the Executive MBA-Brazil class’ Distinguished Professor of the Year twice. In his letter, Nordenberg noted that Mirchandani’s excellence in teaching helped lead to a revised MBA curriculum that has improved business education at Katz.

Ramirez was recognized for having a teaching style that encourages students to pursue intellectually demanding subjects. A Pitt alumnus, Ramirez (A&S ’89G, ’95G) has worked to improve and update the curriculum in the Department of Computer Science in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences as technology continues to evolve. “As a recipient of the Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award and department teaching awards many years running, your positive influence on the undergraduate learning experiences of your students is evident,” the chancellor wrote in a letter to Ramirez notifying him of the award. In his dossier submitted to the award judging panel, Ramirez said he is careful to encourage students to feel comfortable asking any question and offering any response, even incorrect ones. In addition to teaching, Ramirez directs Undergraduate Programs and serves as a computer science liaison for Pitt’s College in High School Program.

Nordenberg lauded Vallejo for his “superior mentoring” of students, residents, and fellows as the director of obstetric anesthesia in Pitt’s School of Medicine, noting the opportunities Vallejo has provided students to gain skills needed to excel in research and clinical practice. An academic faculty member since 1997, Vallejo holds appointments in the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Dental Medicine. He also serves as a mentor for the School of Medicine’s Summer Premedical Academic Enrichment Program. “Your commitment to teaching is evidenced by the numerous teaching awards you have received from within your department, including earning the ‘Excellence in Resident Teaching Award’ from the Department of Anesthesiology three times,” the chancellor wrote in the award letter. Nordenberg also recognized Vallejo for his creation of Web-based courses, simulation workshops, and video courses aimed at increasing the efficacy of clinical learning and education.

Distinguished Research Award

Chang and Moore codiscovered two of the seven known human tumor viruses—Karposi’s sarcoma-associated herpes virus (KSHV/HHV8), the causative agent of the most common cancer in AIDS patients, and the Merkel cell polyomavirus, the first polyomavirus shown to cause cancer. Nordenberg, in his letters to both researchers, said, “Your team has spawned two entirely new fields of research, which has led to new paradigms and insights into the viral 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 the connection to important diseases. This has raised the international profile and reputation of the University as a center for virology and tumor virology research.” The chancellor also wrote Chang and Moore that they have achieved “national and international eminence” as outstanding scholars in their fields.

The breadth of topics that Doiron covers in his research is exceptionally diverse as he seeks to identify how single neurons and networks of neurons code information about relevant inputs. Using a combination of statistical mechanics, nonlinear system theory, and information theory, Doiron’s group has as its main goal the linking of brain dynamics responsible for coding with putative coding schemes that may be general across many sensory systems. Nordenberg’s letter to Doiron cited his “significant contributions in cellular neuroscience; sensory computation ranging over electrosensory, auditory, somatosensory, and olfactory systems; cognitive neuroscience; and new research in neural pathologies such as Parkinson’s disease and tinnitus.” Noting that these areas are traditionally separate subsets of neuroscience, Nordenberg said the general theoretical framework that Doiron has created for how neurons create and transfer variability “has provided deep links between the fields, thereby exposing some core neuroscience principles.”

Little was recognized for his pioneering research that has impacted the controlled release of drugs, which creates more effective treatment regimes. Specifically, Little is noted for his creation of a groundbreaking “tool box” to design more effective controlled-release polymers. In his letter to Little, Nordenberg wrote, “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. These particles actively communicate with the environment, as opposed to the current paradigm, in which polymer degradation is the passive outcome of the environment.” Little has been named to receive the 2012 Young Investigator Award from the Society for Biomaterials.

In his letter to Moe, the chancellor wrote, “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. Your diverse output includes works for large orchestras, chamber music, solo instrumental, vocal and choral, electroacoustic, 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.’” Last year, Moe was one of only 10 composers nationwide selected for a prestigious Aaron Copland Award residency at Copland House in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. Moe codirects the University’s Music on the Edge program, which presents about six concerts each year featuring visiting artists as well as the Music on the Edge Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Pitt music faculty member Roger Zahab.

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. His research group’s cardiovascular engineering efforts include projects that address cardiovascular device biocompatibility and design, tissue engineering, and targeted vascular imaging. In his letter to Wagner, Nordenberg 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 mechanical supports to intervene in cardiovascular disease have the potential to substantially alter how patients are treated following a heart attack, and during surgery when atherosclerotic vessels are bypassed.” The most widely utilized ventricular assist device today—the Heartmate II—was evaluated and developed at Pitt using techniques designed by Wagner’s group.

Distinguished Public Service Award

Chaves-Gnecco was recognized for his work in bringing medical care and health education to the children of Spanish-speaking families in the greater Pittsburgh region, a population that is rapidly growing but geographically dispersed. In 2002, he founded a clinical program now known as Salud Para Niños, Health for Children, which provides culturally and linguistically competent primary care for children and families.

“You have built your patient base by forming your own network through churches, list serves, and a local radio program. You accomplished this as a labor of love, but always with an eye toward building the program in capacity, professionalism, and value to the needs of this special population,” Nordenberg wrote in his letter informing Chaves-Gnecco of his award. “The work and service that you deliver is done with characteristic energy and unfailing dedication to providing the best medical care and wellness to children and families.”

As the founder and director of the Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT), Miller has worked to help coordinate the activities of the City of Pittsburgh and the neighboring 35 municipalities that make up the region’s urban core, which comprises 684,485 residents. In December 2010, CONNECT was cited by the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities in its “Core Communities in Crisis” report as a “best practice” for addressing the isolation of core communities within its region.

In a letter congratulating Miller, Nordenberg said CONNECT “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.”

Muller was recognized for his outstanding service contributions that have focused on working to preserve Pittsburgh’s rich urban history and making it available to the broader public. In particular, Muller was active during the 1980s and early 1990s in reconceptualizing the use of Pittsburgh’s riverfront industrial sites, which were being vacated by deindustrialization. He also was involved in securing and conserving some of Pittsburgh’s rapidly disappearing historical documents through such organizations as the Committee on Pittsburgh Archaeology and History, the Senator John Heinz History Center, the Steel Industry Heritage Task Force, and the Steel Valley Trail Council.

“I am pleased to formally acknowledge your exemplary efforts and very much appreciate the hard work and dedication that you have devoted to serving the community,” Nordenberg wrote in his letter informing Muller of his award. “Your work has brought honor to yourself, your profession, and the University of Pittsburgh.”