UCLA Spotlight

The teachers that inspire

  • Published Jun 15, 2009 8:15 AM

"Students learn best and most when they find their own questions — and answers," says associate professor Janice Reiff. "The best teachers help them do both."

Reiff can speak with authority. She is one of this year's recipients of the Distinguished Teaching Award, which represents the highest attainment of academic and professional excellence at UCLA. All six winners inspired 80 pages or more each of praise from their fellow faculty, their postdocs and students.

Janice Reiff


Janice Rieff

An associate professor of history, Janice Reiff sends students taking her class on the history of Los Angeles on field trips into L.A. neighborhoods to ground them in urban life. Students in a class entitled "America in the Sixties," experience the era through her lectures, but also through music, movies and newsreels of the time. "I see myself first as a designer and choreographer of the educational environment that is a course," she said. Reiff gets raves from students and faculty alike for her ability to weave primary sources into her presentations and make information leap to life.

Students actively seek Reiff out, both to take her classes and to secure her as an adviser, said Kevin Terraciano, professor and chair of the History Teaching Committee. Even "graduate students, who are not always an easy lot to please or impress, consistently sang her praises," he said. As one graduate student put it, Reiff "provided an oasis in a sea of seminars."

Luisa Iruela-Arispe, Undergraduate Mentorship Award


Luisa Iruela-Arispe - Photo by Reed Hutchinson

A professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, Luisa Iruela-Arispe inspires towering praise from her students. "To say that she is amazing would be an understatement," said biology graduate Brittany Kazermierski. Faculty and students repeatedly attribute part of Iruela-Arispe's success to her requirement that science undergraduates design hypothetical experiments based on cutting-edge scientific mysteries.

As one student put it, "This is the first class that actually got me thinking like a scientist, and that is why I love this course and this professor."

Her students "go wild" with ideas when asked to devise experiments, Iruela-Arispe said, adding that she loves the "wonder" of teaching new undergrads.

Mark Bela Santos Moldwin


Mark Bela Santos Moldwin

After undergraduate Jennifer Hyman listened to a lecture by Mark Bela Santos Moldwin, a space physics professor, she found his teaching style so energizing that she overloaded her schedule the next quarter simply to take his space weather class, despite being a psychology and economics double major.

His colleague and department chair, Craig Manning, attributes Moldwin's success to the fact that "he explored the science education literature and discovered an entire new community of scholars interested in how students learn and the best way for teachers to help students." Moldwin attended workshops and conferences to learn more about teaching, and has received multiple grants to develop his own pedagogy.

Off campus, he writes a regular science column for a Culver City newspaper, and works with K-12 teachers in a professional development program.

Roger Detels, Distinction in Teaching at the Graduate Level


Roger Detels - Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Graduates from Epidemiology Professor Detels' classes don't just go on to careers in public health. They go on to establish a public health school in Cambodia or serve as director of health for all of California, for example. Other graduates include the minister of health for Hungary and the former minister of health for Taiwan.

But what Detels is really known for is his work exploring HIV and AIDS. "His teaching and research accomplishments have fundamentally advanced the theory and practice of HIV/AIDS epidemiology," wrote his colleagues. Detels is "a world-renowned teacher and researcher in the field."

"Teaching is a performance art," Detels said. "Humor is key. You can give a fine lecture, but if the students were asleep, you didn't give it! Appropriate humor keeps them attentive, especially if you use it to illustrate a point or concept. … There is no greater joy for a teacher than watching young minds open up and realizing what they can achieve."

Susan Plann


Susan Plann - Photo by Rich Schmitt

Susan Plann goes beyond the classroom to broaden students' knowledge. "Seeing students, even recalcitrant ones, master complex linguistic theories was a source of satisfaction, but seeing many of them graduate with a poor command of Spanish and little or no familiarity with the greater Latino community filled me with a growing frustration," Plann said.

So she created service-learning courses that required to students to tutor Spanish-speaking high schoolers or teach literacy to Spanish-speaking adults. They now work as volunteers with more than 20 community groups. "One undergraduate called it 'getting out of the UCLA bubble,'" Plann recalled. As a result of her success, language classes across campus now include service learning components.

Yung-Ya Lin, Eby Award for the Art of Teaching


Yung Ya Lin

In evaluating courses taught by Yung-Ya Lin, an associate professor, many students remark that "he appears to have stayed up all night to personally grade their exams so that he can return them in time for [the] most effective follow-up," recounted his colleague in the chemistry and biochemistry department, Professor William Gelbart. "Even after getting no sleep — he delivers the next morning a lecture as original and vigorous as ever."

Lin's scores on student evaluations constitute "the strongest multi-year performance in the history of the department," Gelbart said. Students note with awe that Lin learned all their names. "For Dr. Lin, there is no such thing as office hours, because you can e-mail, speak to (and probably even text-message) him whenever you have a question."

"The students invariably see Yung-Ya as a teacher who is deeply devoted to helping them," Gelbart said. "They are deeply touched by the fact that, no matter how hard they are being asked to work, … their professor is working harder and longer."

Adapted from a UCLA Today story by Alison Hewitt. See the complete story, including a listing of non-Senate faculty and teaching assistant winners.