Lai and Mish win initial graduate, professional teaching prize

Dong Lai, M.S. ’91, Ph.D. ’94, professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Risa Mish ’85, J.D. ’88, professor of the practice of management in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, have each won Cornell’s inaugural Provost Award for Teaching Excellence in Graduate and Professional Degree Programs.

"Professor Mish and Professor Lai’s commitment to teaching and mentorship make them both the ideal inaugural winners of this award,” said Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff. “Both are truly outstanding. Their attention, warmth and attitude toward to their students – and their students’ educational endeavors and success – stands out.”

The new award was created to recognize excellence in teaching among faculty who teach primarily at the professional school and/or graduate program level, analogous to the Stephen H. Weiss Teaching Awards, which recognize excellence in undergraduate education. As part of the prize, Lai and Mish will both receive a $7,000 annual stipend for three years, which may be used for any university-related purpose.

For Lai, the selection committee was enthused about his contributions to the graduate field of astronomy, particularly his teaching methods, mentoring and “the amazing record of placement of your Ph.D. students,” Kotlikoff wrote in a letter to Lai.

“I feel very fortunate that here at Cornell we have very talented faculty and students,” Lai said. “The students are curious, eager and dedicated. It is quite a privilege working with them. It’s quite wonderful. They inspire and motivate me.”

Overall, Lai has advised 15 doctoral students and co-advised three additional doctoral students over the last two decades. He currently guides four doctoral students. In the last five years Lai has developed a new graduate-level class in fluid dynamics for astrophysical applications, and he has overhauled two core graduate-level classes – astrophysical processes and astrophysical dynamics – to update the department curriculum.

“Rather than slogging through long derivations, Dong will pose insightful questions and allow graduate students to progress toward goals – not blind alleys – that result in fruitful outcomes,” said David Chernoff, professor of astronomy in A&S, who led the Department of Astronomy’s nomination effort.

“Dong’s energy was infectious,” one alum wrote in a letter of support. “[He is an] excellent lecturer, both inside and outside of the classroom … Dong has spent a great deal of his energy to ensure the professional and scientific success of his students.”

With an eye toward the future for studying the cosmos, “Dong’s extraordinary record of teaching and advising exemplify the department’s commitment to mentoring the next generation of leaders in astronomy,” said Jonathan Lunine, chair, Department of Astronomy in A&S.

Lai earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Science and Technology of China in 1988, and his master’s degree in physics in 1991 and doctorate in theoretical physics, both from Cornell, as an advisee under the late Ed Saltpeter.

Lai did postgraduate research at the California Institute of Technology and joined Cornell’s astronomy department in 1997. He is a member of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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