'Like physics from Einstein' – Students laud master teachers

June 03, 2016

Five engineering professors were recognized for distinguished teaching at the 2016 graduation ceremonies.

Michael Celia, the Theodora Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies and professor of civil and environmental engineering, received the Graduate Mentoring Award. The director of the Program in Environmental Engineering and Water Resources, his research focuses on subsurface hydrology and energy systems, including carbon dioxide sequestration and shale gas. Students praised Celia's dedication. One student said that Celia "truly embodies what it means to be a mentor" and "will sit with you for no matter how long to go over problems and work them through with you step-by-step until you can explain it back to him."

Mung Chiang, the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering and director of the Keller Center, received the engineering school's Distinguished Teaching Award. His research uses mathematical analysis to strengthen and improve the design of wireless networks. In announcing the award, Lynn Loo, the engineering school's acting vice dean, noted that Chiang is known for his dedication to the craft of teaching. His undergraduate networking course is informally known as the "20 questions" class for the way he poses and helps students answer underlying questions about networks of various kinds. An online version of the course, "Networks: Friends, Money and Bytes," has drawn more than 100,000 students since fall 2012.

Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering, received the Phi Beta Kappa Award. Debenedetti, also serves as the University's dean for research. Seniors Kevin Silmore and Elizabeth Banes paid tribute to him as "a truly exceptional and inspiring teacher here at Princeton." Banes wrote in the citation for the award, "Dean Debenedetti has made a name for himself as the kind, yet challenging lecturer of 'Introduction to Thermodynamics,' a prerequisite course for all CBE majors." Banes also valued Debenedetti's qualities as a mentor to generations of Princeton students. "On weekdays, Dean Debenedetti will often be found holding personal office hours into the late evening, guiding any student in need of help through the complex web of thermodynamical concepts."

Brian Kernighan, a professor of computer science, received the Presidential Teaching Award. Kernighan is known for his ability to explain complex subjects. One colleague described the breadth of Kernighan's support of students: "Professor Brian Kernighan has distinguished himself as a master educator through his classroom teaching, his independent work advising, his academic advising, his mentoring and his outreach to the community of Princeton students. A legend in the computing field long before his arrival at Princeton, Brian leaves an indelible mark on every student he advises, teaches and mentors." One undergraduate said "learning how to program from Brian Kernighan is like learning physics from Albert Einstein or calculus from Isaac Newton."

Celeste Nelson, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, received the Presidential Teaching Award. Colleagues underscored Nelson's talent in teaching and developing classes including "Quantitative Physiology and Tissue Design" and "Physical Basis of Human Disease." A colleague noted that Nelson's ability to make connections across disciplines was demonstrated by the molecular biology department's invitation for her to teach its "Quantitative Principles in Cell and Molecular Biology" course. One recent graduate said "we thrived under her expert and thoughtful teaching."