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Six NatSci faculty members, graduate students recognized with All-University Awards

Six Michigan State University College of Natural Science (NatSci) faculty members and graduate students have received 2020-2021 All-University Awards in recognition of their outstanding contributions to education and research.

Award recipients were notified by Suzanne Lang, associate provost, and will receive a framed certificate. The MSU Awards Convocation for 2021 recipients will be scheduled next year due to the pandemic.

The NatSci recipients are:

Headshot of Zhiyong XI
Zhiyong Xi

Zhiyong Xi, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, received a William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award. Supported by the Office of University Development, award winners are honored for a comprehensive and sustained record of scholarly excellence in research and/or creative activities, instruction and outreach. 

Xi focuses his research on decreasing the population of disease-causing mosquitoes, particularly those that cause malaria and dengue fever—Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. Noting that Wolbachia bacteria, commonly found in insects, induces a conditional male sterility in their insect host, Xi generated a novel lab population of dengue- and malaria-carrying mosquito vectors stably infected with Wolbachia. Xi then demonstrated that population replacement can occur through seeding the transinfected mosquitoes into a wild-type population under laboratory conditions. 

With the successful generation of the novel Wolbachia-infected mosquito line, Xi tackled the more ambitious task of translating this discovery into a next generation vector control strategy. He infected entire mosquito populations, successfully reducing their viral load, and breaking the mosquito-human-mosquito cycle of transmission. In a series of studies, he demonstrated the effectiveness of combining the two approaches to diminish the spread of dengue fever and other insect-borne diseases. 

Xi draws on his laboratory studies and real-world application work to enhance his mentoring and teaching of undergraduate and graduate students. He regularly teaches medical entomology and has developed several courses on such special topics as “Animal Symbionts: The Gut and Beyond” and “Molecular Virology” for graduate students. He mentors undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs in his lab to help them develop research skills for their future careers.

Additionally, Xi serves as the director of the Sun Yat-sen University–Michigan State University Joint Center of Vector Control for Tropical Diseases, and leads field trials to develop Wolbachia-based population suppression for control of the primary dengue mosquito vectors in both China and Mexico. 

For his significant accomplishments in combining innovative laboratory studies with the development of methods to combat dengue, malaria and other vector-borne diseases, and for teaching his expertise and research methods to students, Zhiyong Xi richly deserves the Michigan State University William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award.

Headshot of Willie Wong
Wille Wai-Yeung Wong

Willie Wai-Yeung Wong, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, received a Teacher-Scholar Award. Supported by the Office of University Development, these awards are given to faculty who, early in their careers, have earned the respect of students and colleagues for their devotion to and skill in teaching, and whose instruction is linked to and informed by their research and creative activities.

Wong is a leader in the mathematics of nonlinear wave equations and geometrical problems arising in general relativity. His research focuses on the analysis of relativistic membranes, which are dynamic counterparts to minimal surfaces and illustrated by the shape a soap bubble will take when stretched over a loop of wire. Wong uses the structure of elliptic and hyperbolic equations posed on manifolds to attack geometric problems in general relativity and quasilinear wave equations to resolve key questions on relativistic membranes and shock formation, with applications to general relativity, cosmology and high-energy physics. 

He melds his research with his teaching, pioneering innovative curricular reforms in the gateway calculus sequence, and spearheaded a complete revision of the second-semester calculus course. He incorporated his coding experience and secured an external grant to expand the labs to incorporate detailed problems arising from engineering, physics and chemistry. In the words of one student, “Before I participated in these labs, I never knew how much calculus was used outside of the classroom.” 

Wong maintains a web page that solicits REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) students; leads groups through summer and in-semester research activities; and mentors professorial assistants and students in independent study. As a graduate and postdoc supervisor, Wong has a transformative impact. Long after his students have completed their projects, he continues to offer encouragement and advice on networking and career paths, breathing renewed enthusiasm into their research activities and filling them with confidence.

For his contributions to mathematics that illuminate the structure of the cosmos, his dedication as a research mentor and his remarkable innovations in teaching, Willie Wai-Yeung Wong is richly deserving of Michigan State University’s Teacher-Scholar Award.

Headshot of Teena Gerhardt
Teena Gerhardt

Teena Gerhardt, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, received a President’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Supported by an endowment from Carl and Margaret Leidholm, this award is presented to faculty members who have created innovative teaching environments that enable student learning within and across disciplinary, cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Gerhardt demonstrates a tremendous commitment to the education of all students. She spearheaded two major gateway reforms within the mathematics department over the past four years. Gateway courses, historically referred to as prerequisites, are entry-level courses that generally apply to the requirements of a degree program; ideally, they welcome students into a field where they learn the foundational skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their careers. In practice, however, gateway courses have often slowed student progress or taken a lasting toll, particularly on underrepresented college students, who are disproportionately held back by them, leading to lower STEM enrollment and even decreased graduation rates. New approaches to teaching gateway classes in mathematics have led to greater success for all students and radically improved overall understanding of the mathematics material being taught, ensuring greater student success in higher-level classes requiring these skills.

From 2015 to 2017, Gerhardt co-directed the revision of “Applied Calculus,” transforming it from a traditional lecture course into a lab-based class that focused students on applications of calculus in their major area of study; the course was split into a life science stream and an economics stream. Connecting the mathematical abstractions to concrete applications makes the abstractions more accessible and more memorable for many students, reflected in the student comment, “I usually struggle with math, but something about this class clicked for me. I enjoyed going to class.” 

Beginning in fall 2017, Gerhardt led the reform of “Intermediate Algebra,” into the “College Algebra I and II” sequence that shifted class focus from a remedial college algebra lecture course toward preparation for calculus. She has also engaged in the two-year STEM teaching fellow program through MSU’s Association of American Universities STEM education initiative project, which involves working with faculty across the university to improve gateway STEM education.

For her unparalleled contributions to gateway education at MSU and her unwavering commitment to diverse student success, Gerhardt is richly deserving of the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

Darren Incorvaia, a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology, the Center for Integrative Studies, and the Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior program (EEB); and Christopher Warneke, a graduate student in the Department of Plant Biology and EEB, received Excellence-in-Teaching Citations. Supported by the Office of University Development, these awards are given to graduate teaching assistants who have distinguished themselves by the care they have given and the skill they have shown in meeting their classroom responsibilities.

Headshot of Darren Incorvaia
Darren Incorvaia

Incorvaia has demonstrated unparalleled excellence in teaching. In 2020, he led every aspect of a self-created ecology course on the environment around the Great Lakes. With the goal of providing high-level content, he oriented discussion around an acclaimed book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, which considers the principles of ecology and how they relate to real-world issues. He added readings about different audiences (privileged and underprivileged, for example) affected by environmental change, seamlessly incorporating topics of diversity, equity and inclusion in a science course. 

During the pandemic, Incorvaia’s teaching exceeded expectations. As one student remarked: “The spring semester faced its fair share of challenges; because of Darren’s creativity and dedication, the challenges had almost zero impact on my ability to learn and enjoy the course. Darren’s adaptability and passion still shined, even through a computer screen.” Over three years teaching nearly 700 students, Incorvaia has received consistent recognition as a top-notch TA. He received the Harlow Mervyn Mork Excellence-in-Teaching Award in 2019.

Additionally, Incorvaia’s research explores how bumblebees adjust their foraging behavior in response to changes they experience in foraging conditions outside the nest and in the nutritional state of the colony. Through his research, he is answering long-standing, and often contentious, questions about the pressures of natural selection that led to the evolution of the famous honeybee dance language.

Incorvaia has also served the Graduate Employee Union as the IBIO steward and in other official capacities, most recently as chief information officer.

For his commitment to teaching, research and leadership, Darren Incorvaia is most deserving of a Michigan State University Excellence-in-Teaching Citation.

Headshot of Christopher Wernecke
Christopher Warnecke

Warneke is a guide for students, assisting their mastery of course material and development as critical thinkers. A plant biologist, he is deeply knowledgeable about the material he teaches and is committed to student learning. He has mindfully implemented such student-centered approaches as minute papers, think-pair-share and other group work in his classes, always integrating course material with a focus on student engagement and professional skill development, such as collaboration, scientific communication and idea synthesis.

Warneke’s teaching goes beyond the material by helping students to improve their own ability to acquire and to evaluate new information, resulting in students who not only master class material but also become lifelong learners.

Additionally, Warneke is an excellent researcher and contributes significantly to his department and program. His carefully conducted, well replicated and systematic research explores plant recovery following human disturbances and demonstrates excellence in experimental design, field natural history, data analysis and scientific communication. He has published a paper in Ecological Applications and has given more than a dozen presentations on his research—including five at the Ecological Society of America Annual meeting and two invited seminars.

Warneke has been instrumental in instituting a peer-mentoring program to help with retention of plant biology students from underrepresented groups in the sciences. He also mentors undergraduates on their independent research projects, helping them to bridge the gap between the classroom and research.

For his significant impact as an excellent teacher and mentor and his impressive science research, Christopher Warneke is greatly deserving of a Michigan State University Excellence-in-Teaching Citation.

Headshot of Erica Wehrwein
Erica Wehrwein

Erica Wehrwein, an associate professor in the Department of Physiology, received the Donald F. Koch Quality in Undergraduate Teaching Award, which recognizes teachers who take pride in and are committed to quality undergraduate teaching and who demonstrate substantial continuing involvement in undergraduate education. 

Wehrwein is a model educator who significantly strengthens MSU’s mission, nationally and internationally, through her commitment to exemplary undergraduate teaching and major contributions to curricular reform in physiology education as well as graduate and medical education. 

She methodically plans her courses to support well-organized, progressive learning that moves from instructor-led studies to student independent projects. With the exception of an introductory lecture, the majority of class time involves students working together, collecting data, using white boards to draw hypotheses and predict data, and solving patient cases. As the developer and course director of the capstone laboratory for undergraduate physiology students, Wehrwein coordinates more than 60  undergraduate research projects each semester that represent best practices and inquiry-based learning.

Knowing that some physiology misconceptions are common among students, Wehrwein conducted extensive student surveys her first year at MSU to determine these areas of misunderstanding and content confusion. She then designed lab topics to break down silos of learning to directly address—and correct—these erroneous impressions. She even organized an entire lab to tackle a major misunderstanding about the function of two main branches of the nervous system that textbooks often perpetuate, so students could detect the problem through their own observations to arrive at the correct understanding of content.

Basing some of her teaching on clinical work she conducted at the Mayo Clinic, Wehrwein incorporates her clinical training, research data and patient case studies into classroom material to support student learning. Her innovative work with endocrine research utilizing a glucose clamp allows her to offer the only undergraduate course in the nation incorporating this cutting-edge research technique, which her students greatly appreciate.

For her excellent work preparing future generations of physiologists as both clinical practitioners and research scientists, Erica A. Wehrwein is most deserving of the Donald F. Koch Quality in Undergraduate Teaching Award.

For more information on this year’s awards and a complete list of award recipients, visit the MSU Today story


Banner image: Six Michigan State University College of Natural Science (NatSci) faculty members and graduate students have received 2020-2021 All-University Awards in recognition of their outstanding contributions to education and research. The NatSci recipients are: Teena Gerhardt, Darren Incorvaia, Erica Wehrwein, Christopher Werneke, Willie Wong and Zhiyong Xi.