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The core of any university is its teachers. Each year, the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences — Pitt’s largest school — honors the talents of exceptional instructors with Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Awards.
Established in 1998 and named after alumnus David Bellet (A&S ’67) and his wife, the annual award recognizes outstanding and innovative teaching in undergraduate studies.
The 2022 recipients are Jennifer Laaser, Dana Och and Ellen Smith. They each received a $6,000 cash prize and framed certificate.
“To be nominated feels great but pales in comparison to receiving an award that acknowledges and celebrates the often invisible work we do to support our students,” said Och.
During an April 5 ceremony at the University Club, the winners shared remarks with colleagues and students alongside Erica McGreevy, a 2020 awardee whose recognition was delayed due to the pandemic.
McGreevy received her doctorate in molecular, cell and developmental biology from Pitt in 2014 and then transitioned into lecturing in the University’s Department of Biological Sciences.
Read on and watch the videos to learn why these women are top teachers at Pitt.
“What makes Dr. Laaser so great is her contagious passion for quantum mechanics and physical chemistry and her long-term work towards making the classroom the most accessible and welcoming place possible,” said Taylor Tomlinson, a senior chemistry and sociology major.
Jennifer Laaser joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. She now runs a polymer materials research group, the Laaser Lab and enjoys conducting science community outreach or “explaining cool science to anyone who will listen.”
“It’s wonderful to be recognized as part of this enthusiastic community that is so dedicated to undergraduate teaching,” said Laaser, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry. “I couldn't be in better company. We have wonderful undergraduates at Pitt, and I have found that they give back as much as we put in. They show up, participate, ask questions, made jokes and learn. That's what gets me back into the classroom week after week.”
Dana Och’s interest in cinema began as a child when a typical night meant staying up late to watch movies with the family. She enrolled at Pitt in 1992, where she discovered the opportunity to combine her love of media with teaching, and has been here ever since. She’s currently an assistant director and senior lecturer in film and media studies and director of undergraduate studies for the program.
Alum Sofia Sparks (A&S ’21) said Och’s choice of assigning a podcast rather than a research paper for the final project was a highlight during her Television Analysis course.
“Dr. Och is an incredibly engaging educator whose love and excitement about the material she uses is palpable in her teaching and interactions with students,” said Sparks. “She creates a classroom environment that’s inviting and challenging, so students feel able to dig into materials and ask questions which expands and enhances their desire and ability to learn.”
Och praised the Bellet selection committee for recognizing “the extraordinary effort invested into translating our teaching into new forms and platforms with compassion as a core tenet.”
The components of an exceptional teacher are interpersonal skills and concern for students’ success beyond grades, said Alayna Powell (A&S ’21). The poetry and professional writing major credited Ellen Smith with encouraging her to believe in herself and her writing abilities.
“Her teaching extends beyond the classroom,” said Powell. “She teaches you how to live your life as a writer. It only takes one person to show interest and belief in you.”
Smith received an MFA from Pitt in 1993 and returned in 2001 to teach literature, creative writing and composition courses, which she said enabled her the freedom to develop her craft as a writer and that of her students.
“Pitt, the Dietrich School and the English department — my talented colleagues and students — have enabled me to thrive and grow as a teacher and writer,” Smith said.
— Kara Henderson, photos by Mike Drazdzinski and Aimee Obidzinski