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Optics professor Thomas Brown and biology professor Sina Ghaemmaghami are the latest recipients of the University’s Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professorships. (University of Rochester photos / J. Adam Fenster)

Thomas Brown and Sina Ghaemmaghami receive University of Rochester distinguished teaching professorships.

About the Mercer Brugler Professorships

The University’s Mercer Brugler Distinguished Professorships, established in 1979, are announced every three years and are held by the recipients until the next round of awards.

The professorships are named after Mercer Brugler ’25, former chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees, and former president and chairman of Pfaudler Co. (later Sybron Corp.).

The awards support one or more faculty in the College in Arts, Sciences & Engineering for a three-year period for the purposes of improving undergraduate education. Recipients are expected to plan a program of instruction for students that will expand the normal bounds of their expertise in subject matter while also incorporating work in other domains of study within or outside the students’ own discipline. Demonstrated excellence in teaching is a pre-requisite for appointment to the professorship.

Even before the pandemic, Thomas Brown ’87 (PhD) and Sina Ghaemmaghami—the latest recipients of the Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professorships at the University of Rochester—established themselves as outstanding teachers.

When COVID-19 forced the University to switch to remote learning last year, they continued to shine, exemplifying how they and their faculty colleagues were able to find new ways to connect with students and provide them with novel learning experiences.

For example, Brown, a professor of optics, organized a series of virtual summer workshops in lieu of traditional in-person orientation to help incoming optics students feel at home. Meanwhile, Ghaemmaghami, an associate professor of biology and the director of undergraduate research in Arts, Sciences & Engineering, converted the annual Undergraduate Research Expo into an online event. He also arranged summer funding for undergraduates to conduct computational research remotely.

The Brugler professorships, which are announced every three years, are held by the recipients until the next round of awards.

This is not the first time Brown and Ghaemmaghami have been recognized for exceptional contributions to undergraduate teaching. They both also received the University’s Goergen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2017.

Brown joined the faculty of the Institute of Optics after earning his doctoral degree. He was the founding director of the Hopkins Center for Optical Design and Engineering, and he led the institute’s undergraduate curriculum committee for more than a decade. Several of the courses he developed remain a cornerstone of the institute’s curriculum. A revamped introductory course he developed “inspires those in the major already and opens the door to an exciting field of study for those not yet decided,” and has contributed to a recent resurgence in undergraduate enrollment from 58 in 2010 to 169 in 2021, says institute director Scott Carney.

As a result, Brown is “responsible for many of the hallmarks of a modern institute education,” Carney says. “He is a fearless teacher who relishes new courses and new challenges.”

Ghaemmaghami, who received his PhD in biochemistry from Duke University in 2001, joined the Department of Biology at Rochester in 2012, and has instituted several innovative teaching practices. In his sophomore honors biochemistry course, for example, he requires students to create five-minute YouTube videos that describe important concepts in biochemistry for the general public. These have garnered more than 700,000 views.

As director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, he worked with RocLab, a student software development club, to develop the AURA website to connect undergraduates with research opportunities on campus. Of the 50 undergraduates he has mentored in his lab, 35 have been women or underrepresented minorities.

“Sina is a star scientist, a great colleague, and an accomplished and celebrated teacher,” says Michael Welte, professor and chair of biology. “He is a creative, dedicated, and inspiring instructor.”

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