Students and Faculty Honored With 2021 Teaching and Mentoring Awards Stood Out for Excellence and Dedication During the Pandemic

July 7, 2021

Congratulations to Professors Ryan Murelli, Alyson Cole, and Jean Graham-Jones and Ph.D. students Melenia Giakoumis, Olivia Wood, and Karen Zaino.

(Top from Left) Professors Ryan Murelli, Alyson Cole, and Jean Graham-Jones; (Bottom from Left) Ph.D. students Melenia Giakoumis, Olivia Wood, and Karen Zaino
(Top from Left) Professors Ryan Murelli, Alyson Cole, and Jean Graham-Jones; (Bottom from Left) Ph.D. students Melenia Giakoumis, Olivia Wood, and Karen Zaino

The Graduate Center honored three doctoral candidates and three faculty members with 2021 Teaching and Mentoring Awards. This year, the awards, which recognize excellence, creativity, and dedication, also reflected the ways the recipients responded to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty winners of the mentoring awards are Professors Alyson Cole (GC/Queens, Political Science); Jean Graham-Jones (Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures; Theatre and Performance); and Ryan Murelli (GC/Brooklyn, Biochemistry and Chemistry). Melenia Giakoumis (Biology); Olivia Wood (English); and Karen Zaino (Urban Education) were recognized for their excellence in teaching CUNY students.

Mentoring Award Winners

Alyson Cole serves as the executive officer of the Political Science program at the Graduate Center. In his nomination letter, Professor Charles Tien (GC/Hunter, Political Science), her colleague in the department and fellow editor of the journal Polity, called Cole “the most positive influence on our program’s students in the last twenty years.” He wrote that, for students, Cole creates “opportunities to grow to be the scholars they want to be in a way that guides and directs, but does not dictate.” Tien was echoed in the letters of support from students and alumni. Graduate student Andrés Besserer Rayas summed up the sentiments, writing “Those of us who have taken her course find that it has given us tools — practical, ethical, and pedagogical — to become instructors ourselves.” He called Cole “the kind of mentor who can change the way you think, get you out of an intellectual slump, and refresh your scholarly interests in a single afternoon.” Her role as a mentor was especially crucial this year during the pandemic, he said. “It is hard to imagine having gone through this difficult year without her mentorship.”

Jean Graham-Jones, the Lucille Lortel Professor of Theatre and Performance and Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures, is a specialist in contemporary and colonial Latin American theater and performance. She served as executive officer of the program in Theatre and Performance and leads that program’s professionalization activities. Professor Peter Eckersall (Theatre and Performance), the executive office of the program, wrote that the supporting letters from her students “highlight the breadth and distinctive strengths of her mentorship — that is centrally supporting the research in Latin-American theatre studies — and giving expert support to students working on fields including human rights and disability, translation theory, and activism in the contemporary arts.” One of those students, Maria Litvan, emphasized the role Graham-Jones plays for her and other students, writing, “Her great generosity of heart and her love of knowledge and of translation (in its most comprehensive dimension), inspire us, her mentees, not only to be better scholars, but also to truly become better human beings.” 

Ryan Murelli (GC/Brooklyn College, Biochemistry and Chemistry) leads the student researchers in his lab to address challenges in medicine using principles of organic chemistry. His colleague Professor Brian Gibney (GC/Brooklyn, Biochemistry and Chemistry) wrote that Murelli “trains world-class problem solvers that work well in group settings — exactly the type of professionals that the chemical industry wants to employ.” He has worked to enhance the professional training of his students who have gone on to careers in academia, writing, and industry. Alumna Danielle Hirsch (Ph.D. ’18, Chemistry), who now works as a medical writer, wrote, Murelli “sees the potential in projects that others may overlook.” Lauren Bejcek (Ph.D. ’21, Chemistry), who now works at a pharmaceutical company, noted that students working in his lab have “multiple opportunities to make their own novel individual contributions to research.” Praise for Murelli went beyond career preparation. As Bejcek put it: He “understands the importance of work life balance, and mental health.” 

Teaching Award Winners

Melenia Giakoumis (Biology) studies the evolutionary genomics of sea stars in the context of predicting the impacts of climate changes in the Atlantic Ocean. Research, science communication, and education are priorities for her, and Giakoumis was chosen for the inaugural Graduate Center Science Communication Fellowship. She has taught science to various age groups and participates in a program called Skype-a-Scientist. This spring she faced a new challenge while teaching the laboratory sections of Ecology and Evolution to undergraduates at City College. “When the threat of COVID-19 was looming, I was in the same position as countless other course instructors,” she explained. “I was forced to adapt my teaching plan to be fully virtual. This task is difficult no matter which type of course is being taught, but a four-hour interactive hands-on lab is particularly challenging to teach virtually. We adopted a policy where empathy and understanding were some of our top priorities. The students responded to this, were open with us about their difficulties, and many were able to excel in the course. We also made sure that the students knew we were available to them if they needed us.” 

Olivia Wood’s (English) research focus is rhetoric and composition, and LGBT studies. She is also a Digital Pedagogy Fellow for the OpenLab at the New York City College of Technology. Teaching undergraduate English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, she has focused on engaging each student while she creates community. At the start of teaching a new class, she explained, “we don’t just learn about each individual — we also learn what we have in common and what makes us each unique in our classroom community.” During the height of the COVID pandemic, she developed teaching strategies, such as flexible assignments, to ease the enormous stresses her students faced, from homelessness to unemployment to the loss of family members. Wood wrote, “For all students, I feel it’s the least I can do to offer empathy and flexibility in my classroom, and to make sure they know that I am always glad to have them there, whether they’ve prepared for class or not.” 

Karen Zaino (Urban Education) teaches in the English Education program in the Secondary Youth and Education Services department of Queens College and is a project researcher for the CUNY Initiative on Immigration & Education. Before starting her Ph.D., she taught high school English for 12 years. She said, “From the first day of class, I show my students that they are already knowledgeable about education. In low-stakes writing exercises, small group brainstorms, and whole class discussions, we consider the range of their educational experiences.” She and her students also consider larger issues of educational justice and injustice. Zaino noted that teaching during the pandemic intensified what is at the heart of education. “The pandemic taught us that in classrooms, we must value each other, and cultivate caring spaces for learning, creating, and being together,” she wrote. “It is ongoing work — never-ending, really — but it is the only work worth doing, the work toward the CUNY that predecessors dreamed and that students deserve.”

Selection committee members for 2021 were Jennifer Furlong, director of the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development, and Luke Waltzer, director of the Teaching and Learning Center, along with the three 2020 mentoring awardees, Professors Stephen Brier (Urban Education), Phillip Ewell (GC/Hunter, Music), and Alicia Meléndez (GC/Queens, Biology).

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.