College of Science announces 2023 Teaching and Advising Awards

Sept. 11, 2023

Every year, the College of Science recognizes outstanding faculty and advisors for their noteworthy participation in representing and contributing to the teaching and advising mission of the University of Arizona. There are six award categories to recognize these outstanding individuals.

We take pride in the care and support that our faculty and staff provide for our students. Read below to learn more about the impact of our award winners Gurtina Besla, Kara DysonAmy Graham, Susan Hester, Vicky Tzuyin Lai, and Laura Van Dorn. We celebrate their dedication to educating our students and perfecting their craft of teaching and advising. Congratulations!

We will recognize this year's awardees and other outstanding members of the College of Science at the annual Faculty Reception on Tuesday, September 19, 2023.

Distinguished Career Teaching Award

Amy Graham, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Practice, Chemistry and Biochemistry

This award is given in recognition of a long career as an outstanding classroom teacher and mentor of students at different levels and in diverse settings.

Amy Graham

“I write this recommendation for Dr. Graham from a unique perspective. I am a professor at UArizona. I was also a student in Dr. Graham’s CHEM 151 and CHEM 152 courses during the 2021-2022 academic year. Everything about her teaching in both what she does and how she does it is unusually outstanding. Dr. Graham leads every step of the way with compassion and grace through very academically rigorous content. Her teaching breaks down barriers often faced by BIPOC, first gen, and underrepresented students and furthers the HSI mission of our university. I envision how many diverse or underrepresented students might have otherwise turned and ran from STEM had it not been for the collaborative learning and excellence practiced by Dr. Graham. I am grateful to have had her as my instructor. I am even more proud that she is my colleague at UArizona.” Vanessa Perry, Ph.D. Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies, and Associate Professor of Practice, M.A. Counseling Program

“Her record of teaching accomplishments has significantly advanced the mission of our department and college and are clearly deserving of this honor. Dr. Graham has expanded her efforts to create an inclusive and welcoming environment in her classroom, in CBC and across the university. Dr. Graham has also created the podcast series titled 'PEP Talks: Productive Educational Practices' where she helps to share the stories, intentions, and methods of a wide range of educators at UArizona. She has created a pedagogy-based curriculum for training learning assistants (preceptors and/or teaching assistants) who aid students in learning both within and outside of the classroom. Her long-term excellence in the classroom is a true testament to an outstanding and distinguished teaching career.” Craig Aspinwall, Ph.D. Professor and Department Head, Chemistry and Biochemistry

Innovation in Teaching Award

Laura Van Dorn, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Practice, Chemistry and Biochemistry

This award is in recognition of outstanding educational innovation developed and applied to course delivery whether in the classroom or in a virtual setting.

Laura Van Dorn

“Dr. Van Dorn is an extraordinary educator with enormous impact on our teaching mission and on the students that she teaches, and her activities represent an outstanding educational innovation for the classroom delivery of chemistry. To further make connections between chemistry to their fields of study/career goals, Dr. Van Dorn filmed live action demonstrations on-site in Koffler, with the help of UArizona Digital Learning, which by contextualizing the material, she is effectively making chemistry more relatable to the students in her class and maintaining their interest. These filmed demonstrations have proven to be effective, so much so that UCATT highlighted one the videos as an example of how to effectively use visual demonstrations in an online course.” Lisa M. Dollinger, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Practice, Chemistry and Biochemistry

“Dr. Van Dorn serves as a positive role model and mentor in her work. She has mentored over 225 undergraduate students from a wide range of majors who have worked with her as preceptors, most after having taken the course, as well as many CBC graduate teaching assistants who have benefited from her mentorship. Her efforts do not merely represent the development of a new course but have completely transformed CBC’s delivery of chemistry to Allied Health majors. Dr. Van Dorn worked with the key stakeholders, including Arizona Online, to redesign the Chemistry for Allied Health sequence to include a one semester lecture and lab course. Many other students and preceptors noted a positive impact on their careers by Dr. Van Dorn highlighting her interactions, her enthusiasm, and her ability to connect life skills into her teaching, mentoring, and learning. Dr. Van Dorn is an extraordinary educator with enormous impact on our teaching mission and the educational mission of the institution, and her activities represent outstanding innovation in classroom and online teaching of chemistry.” Craig Aspinwall, Ph.D. Professor and Department Head, Chemistry & Biochemistry

Distinguished Achievement in Science Education Award

Susan Hester, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Practice, Molecular and Cellular Biology

This award is in recognition of outstanding contributions directed toward systematic improvement of science and mathematics education beyond the classroom. This includes scholarly works that contribute to improving teaching and learning.

Susan Hester

“Dr. Hester has a special gift for curriculum design. In my experience, innovative curriculum design requires a combination of creativity, disciplinary understanding, and intuition about students. In her earlier work, Dr. Hester developed an introductory biology curriculum that was aligned with learning objectives, engaged students in collaborative learning, fostered reasoning skills, and included all relevant supports (readings, pre-class assignments, in-class activities, and assessments). Years after its development, many components of this curriculum continue to be used by our instructors and even instructors at other institutions. The curriculum we developed, which we call AIM-BIO (Authentic Inquiry through Modeling in Biology) engages students in scientific practices through cycles of proposing, testing, and refining conceptual models to explain biological phenomena. Dr. Hester was integral to the design of AIM-BIO from initial brainstorming, through testing and revision and now finalizing and disseminating the curriculum. Her work in education has resulted in three first author publications (one in the last stages of review), numerous conference presentations and likely another manuscript in the next few months. I would like to emphasize that Dr. Hester is a well-rounded and highly experienced professional – in education as well as educational research. I highly recommend Dr. Hester without reservation.” Molly S. Bolger, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Molecular and Cellular Biology

“Professor Hester has dedicated her career both inside and outside the classroom to innovation in Science Education. Prof. Hester has played a key role in Introductory Biology education within our department. Her work has demonstrated remarkable outcomes of reformed curricula, in the context of rigorous educational experiments. Her innovative approaches now impact thousands of students each semester, and she continues to be a force in shaping our educational mission. She is truly deserving of the Distinguished Achievement in Science Education Award.” Ryan Gutenkunst, Ph.D. Professor, and Interim Department Head, Molecular and Cellular Biology

Distinguished Academic Advising Award

Kara Dyson, Senior Academic Advisor II, Molecular and Cellular Biology

This award is given by the College of Science to recognize one advisor who demonstrates outstanding, extensive, and continuous involvement in undergraduate advising.

Kara Dyson

“Kara represents the best advising has to offer and is a model member of our community. She has amazing follow-through and is a key component in our ability to maintain a strong retention rate among freshmen (currently at 92%). Her impact in the lives of these students is far reaching as they move out into the world and the workforce. She began a First Year Essentials workshop for our incoming students that helps them navigate their lives on campus. She started a peer mentoring program, MCB ambassador program, revamped the MCB club and much more. Again, and again our students report what a difference she has made in their lives. She is so deserving of this award!” Joyce Schroeder, Ph.D. Professor, and former Department Head, Molecular and Cellular Biology

“Kara is remarkably loved by our students. Consistently, students rank their MCB advising experience as excellent and one of the most important aspects of their success. The support the students get from Kara is second to none. Kara was instrumental in designing the curriculum for our new Online Bachelor of Arts degree in MCB. In all aspects of her job, she goes above and beyond expectations to support students directly, create new programs, and help shape our curriculum. She is truly deserving of a Distinguished Advising Award.” Ryan Gutenkunst, Ph.D. Professor, and Interim Department Head, Molecular and Cellular Biology

“As an academic advisor in the College of Science, I consider myself lucky to work with such a smart, dedicated, and hard-working professional like Kara. She continues to enrich the life of me, our students, and the others in our department. Kara is a terrific model of compassionate, personalized, robust, and effective advising at the University of Arizona. If anyone is deserving of the distinguished advising award for their performance, it’s her.” Justin Schneider, M.Ed. Academic Advisor II, Molecular and Cellular Biology

Distinguished Student Mentoring Award

Vicky Tzuyin Lai, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Psychology and Cognitive Science

This award is in recognition of demonstrated outstanding, extensive, and continuous involvement in student mentoring.


“Dr. Lai’s involvement in student mentoring starts before they even enter the university. Her lab regularly hosts students from Tucson High Magnet School, a Title 1 school, to set them up for college trajectories. Through her outreach activities, she recruits students directly to the university. Within the College of Science, Dr. Lai fosters novel collaborations that benefit students and provides them with unique training opportunities. Her extensive list of collaborators spans from Geosciences to Neuroscience, Biology, and Computer Sciences. She takes in undergraduate students from a variety of academic backgrounds as research assistants, and actively pursues grants that allow undergraduate students from underrepresented minorities in STEM to receive stipends. Undergraduate students in her lab receive extensive training beyond the scope of independent study or directed research, such as teamwork, professionalism, and communication. Dr Lai embodies going above and beyond in her mentoring throughout all career stages.” Valeria Pfeifer, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Research Associate II, University of Arizona Sursum Fellow, Department of Psychology

“In addition to serving as a primary advisor for 7 highly successful Ph.D. students, Vicky served on 16 graduate student committees for other students in the departments of Psychology and Linguistics, and the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching GIDP. Overall, her record of interdisciplinary training is impressive. Vicky is aware of the needs of graduate students at different career stages, and tailors her mentoring to their stage. In each student’s first semester, she focuses on building a strong working relationship with them by working on a project together. She tries to understand issues that could affect work, including cultural and educational backgrounds (aka. the road travelled), race, gender, mental and disability status, etc. As part of her efforts to enhance the career development of her students, Vicky encourages them to write grants and nominates her students for various awards. As a result, her students have received various grants and awards, which in turn increase their job opportunities. Vicky is sincere, approachable, and knowledgeable, and her students trust her to have their best interests in mind.” Mary A. Peterson, Ph.D. Professor and Director, Cognitive Science Program; Professor, Psychology Department and Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute

Distinguished Early-Career Teaching Award

Gurtina Besla, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Astronomy and Associate Astronomer, Steward Observatory

This award is in recognition of outstanding classroom (in-person or virtual) teaching at the undergraduate or graduate levels. Nominees should be less than ten years as members of the University of Arizona and should have demonstrated sustained commitment to high quality, inclusive teaching in a variety of settings.


“Gurtina is one of those rare individuals who possess all the characteristics we seek in an exceptional faculty member. Dr. Besla’s portfolio of activities is especially diverse, including top-quality classroom teaching at all levels (the lower and upper division undergraduate level and the graduate level) and exceptional mentoring of graduate and undergraduate research students. The praise for her ASTR 400B course was among the highest we have ever seen, with several students ranking her among the best (sometimes the best) professors they had ever worked with, and similarly effusive comments about the course itself. Our graduate students, a famously discerning group with very high expectations, also praised the course they took with Dr. Besla. I commend Gurtina Besla and give the strongest possible support for recognizing her teaching and mentoring accomplishments.” Buell T. Jannuzi, Ph.D. Department Head, Astronomy & Director, Steward Observatory

“Gurtina is a compassionate teacher, and through her thoughtful efforts she has developed a deep understanding of the conceptual and reasoning difficulties that students have with a wide variety of topics. She has also gained a detailed knowledge of the many implementation challenges that face college instructors working to successfully use evidence-based, active learning instructional strategies. I have watched Gurtina access students’ learning difficulties in real-time (in person and online) and successfully engage them with just the right instructional strategies or questions to help guide them get back on track – a truly expert pedagogical ability. Simply put, Gurtina is a naturally talented teacher. One visit to any of the classes she teaches, and you are immediately drawn into the learning with the students. Her passion for teaching astronomy is inspiring. Her courses are leading the nation as a model for how to best teach the real quantitative and data literacy skills one must possess to practice astronomy (and STEM) in the age of big data. I provide my enthusiastic support for Dr. Gurtina Besla’s nomination for the College of Science Distinguished Early-Career Teaching Award.” Edward Prather, Ph.D. Professor, Department of Astronomy

Congratulations to this year's awardees!