Associate department head of biological sciences receives Julius Ashkin Award for Excellence in Teaching

The prestigious Julius Ashkin Award for Excellence in Teaching was awarded to Amy Burkert last week. Burkert is the associate department head for undergraduate affairs in the biological sciences department and director of the Health Professions Program.

The award encourages and recognizes dedication and effectiveness in teaching undergraduate students at the Mellon College of Science (MCS).

Burkert said that the award came as a pleasant surprise. She was honored to be placed in the same category as the other highly revered faculty members who have received the award in the past. The decision was made by a selection committee, whose members include the last three recipients of the Julius Ashkin Award, three other faculty members appointed by the chairman of the committee, and one undergraduate student. The faculty members are selected to represent the four departments of MCS.

Eric Grotzinger, the associate dean of MCS and the chairman of the selection committee, said, “Amy is an incredible person. Bright, creative, and hardworking — these are the three ingredients that make her a tremendous and successful teacher.”

A faculty member must receive at least three nominations to be considered for the award. Burkert was nominated by Grotzinger, Stephen Garoff of the physics department, and Karen Stump of the chemistry department. Grotzinger said that the recipient of the award should be a faculty member who gets high faculty course evaluations, teaches a variety of subjects, and receives outstanding letters of recommendations from colleagues and students.

In order to assess a nominee’s credentials, the selection committee for the Ashkin Award collects letters of recommendations from faculty members and students.

The selection committee encourages the nominee’s students (current students and alumni) to send letters of recommendations. The opinions of the faculty members and students are given equal weight in the selection process. A total of 15 letters of recommendation collected from undergraduate students were taken into consideration by the selection committee.

Burkert has been a member of the Carnegie Mellon community since 1995, when she was invited by Michael Domach of the chemical engineering department to teach the Biomedical Physiology course. She agreed to join the department and taught physiology for 10 years.

“Initially when I was called, I was nervous, but I was also very passionate about the topic,” Burkert said. “I have always been amazed by the human body’s functioning and structure and how small molecules and have such a huge impact on the body. I like sharing my fascination with students.”

Burkert’s breadth of teaching attracted the selection committee even more. She has been instrumental at the college level in developing an interdisciplinary first-year laboratory course called EUREKA and a new global science course titled Biotechnology Impacting Ourselves, Society, and Sphere. Burkert has also taught another first-year seminar course called Proteins and Diseases.
“She is [a] big thinker,” said Grotzinger.

One more factor that gained Burkert the approval of the selection committee was the praise that she received from students regarding her advising sessions. Students contributed to Burkert’s selection by penning thoughtful recommendation letters to the selection committee for the Ashkin Award.

“Many students just say that when she is advising you she is teaching you,” Grotzinger said.

Burkert is whole-heartedly devoted to her professional life. She said that it brings her joy and fulfillment, and that her family supports her in this.

“My family embraces education,” Burkert said.

Grotzinger also said that one letter of recommendation from a faculty member elaborated on Burkert’s unique ability to attend a meeting, absorb the details, and then start talking about how to implement the relevant ideas at Carnegie Mellon.

When asked where she sees herself 10 years from today, Burkert said, “I envision myself at Carnegie Mellon University. It is so much a part of me.” Burkert also said that she wants to do her part to provide more initiatives for scientists outside Carnegie Mellon and help the university make its mark at the national level. Grotzinger said that he sees Burkert as one of the most outstanding educators in the country.

“She has the energy and ability,” he said.

Burkert’s immense creativity and ideas are undoubtedly promising to the future of biological sciences, and the Julius Ashkin Award has recognized this potential in her.