2022-23 Teaching Assistant Award winners demonstrate educational excellence

Twenty-one outstanding graduate students have been selected as recipients of the 2022-23 UW–Madison Campus-Wide Teaching Assistant Awards, recognizing their excellence in teaching.

UW–Madison employs over 2,300 teaching assistants (TAs) across a wide range of disciplines. Their contributions to the classroom, lab, and field are essential to the university’s educational mission. To recognize the excellence of TAs across campus, the Graduate School, the College of Letters & Science (L&S), and the Morgridge Center sponsor these annual awards.

The following students were honored in this year’s TA Awards. Learn more about each awardee in the bios below.

Exceptional Service Award

  • Andrea Quaini, French & Italian
  • Karan Srivastava, Mathematics
  • Vincent R. Ogoti, African Cultural Studies

Early Excellence in Teaching Award

  • Ludwig Decke, History
  • Boyana Martinova, Mathematics
  • Emma Wathen, History of Science
  • Yeyu Wang, Educational Psychology

Innovation in Teaching Award

  • Brendan Dowling, Asian Languages and Cultures
  • Felipe Moraga, Spanish and Portuguese
  • James Osorio, Music

Capstone PhD Teaching Award

  • Abigail Letak, Sociology
  • Kelsey Schenck, Educational Psychology
  • Molly Minden, Political Science
  • Ruth Trumble, Geography
  • Sara Gabler Thomas, English

Dorothy Powelson Teaching Assistant Award

  • Cara Schwarz, Chemistry
  • Emily Diaz Vallejo, Geography
  • Patrick Beaty, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences
  • Alan Lee, Anthropology
  • Soren Ormseth, Physics

Excellence in Community-Based Learning Teaching Award

  • Vivien Ahrens, Civil Society and Community Studies

Exceptional Service Award

Andrea Quaini

Andrea QuainiAndrea is a PhD student in the Department of French & Italian. In the Italian program, he’s focused on Dante’s Inferno and medieval literature, poetry, philosophy, theology, art, and history. His dissertation will inquire into the role of free will and its relationships with necessity, freedom, and love in Dante’s work.

In his time at UW–Madison, Andrea has taught all levels of Italian languages, and in summer 2023 he was a reader for the course about Machiavelli and His World.

“As a scholar, I like to find the ways humans tried to investigate the world around them and the strange, fascinating world that is the human being itself; as a teacher, my goal is to convey this curiosity to my students,” Andrea said. “Learning Italian is surely a way to have an edge in the modern world of business, so I am committed to teaching the tools for being part of contemporary Italian fashion and food business, for example; but I think that learning Italian is a unique way to understand Renaissance art, courteous poetry, and medieval philosophy – that is, a way to being aware of the greatness of the human being and its links with the cosmos around them.”

Karan Srivastava

Karan SrivastavaKaran is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Mathematics working in the intersection of math and machine learning. “To come up with an interesting math question, we sometimes need to do lots of computations; to answer it, we need to find the useful ones and find patterns in them,” Karan said. “I’m interested in studying how we can train computer algorithms to generate useful mathematical data and find these patterns to inform mathematical discovery.”

During his time at UW–Madison, Karan has taught numerous calculus courses and discrete mathematics and has organized mentoring programs such as Math Circle, the directed reading program, and the Madison Experimental Math Lab. These programs aim to inspire young middle school to undergraduate math enthusiasts to engage with math by working with faculty and graduate students at the university through fun activities, research, and reading.

As a teacher, Karan works to do his part in connecting people so that they are heard.

“In the classroom, that’s about understanding the needs of every person, their interests, and areas for growth. I aim to create an environment where students can ask questions, make mistakes, and learn to move past them. I want them to build their confidence one step at a time so they can see how skilled they really are,” Karan said. “Outside the classroom, it means building bridges between various parts of our community – between local middle school students and our faculty, between graduate students and undergraduate students from different backgrounds, and between students across different departments. One of my favorite things about Madison is the wealth of diversity and knowledge that exists in our university and local communities. I want to help build bridges between these communities through shared interests – in math, for example – and learn from each other.”

Vincent R. Ogoti

Vincent OgotiVincent is a PhD student in African Cultural Studies who has taught courses on Global Hip Hop and Social Justice; an Introduction to African Cultural Expression; Africa, Nonviolence and Social Change; and Africa: Introductory Survey.

“I consider education a ‘practice of freedom’ and a means by which we gain knowledge of the world and develop ideas for improving it. My experience as an educator in diverse political and cultural contexts has taught me that education can inspire and mobilize students to strive toward better futures and provide opportunities for social justice,” Vincent said. “I have enjoyed the opportunities to develop and teach courses that advance this teaching philosophy at UW–Madison and in the broader Madison community. I am grateful for the support I have received from the African Cultural Studies Department, African Studies Program, History Department, and Odyssey Beyond Bars.”

Early Excellence in Teaching Award

Ludwig Decke

Ludwig DeckeLudwig is a PhD student in the Department of History, specializing in the intersection of Jewish, (post-)colonial, and modern European history. His dissertation examines the relationship between Jewish politics, the state, and anti-racist struggles in Western Europe after the Holocaust and decolonization.

At UW–Madison, Ludwig has enjoyed being a TA for courses on Europe and the Modern World, 1815 to the Present; the First World War and the Shaping of 20th-Century Europe; and the Second World War. He is excited about the opportunity to teach his first course as an instructor this summer, which will focus on the history and legacy of the Holocaust.

“As someone who was new to the American college culture, teaching at a major public university in the U.S. posed a challenge at first. But I soon began to appreciate the genuine kindness of my students and their willingness to explore difficult historical issues with me,” Ludwig said. “I try to create a classroom in which everybody feels included and involved. This means less talking from my side, and more interaction between the students. I believe that critical historical thinking has the potential to create more responsible citizens and more empathetic human beings. If you want your students to approach this goal, you need to give them the opportunity to actively engage with historical questions that seem significant to them.”

Boyana Martinova

Boyana MartinovaBoyana is a PhD student in Mathematics whose research interests fall somewhere in the realm of commutative algebra with connections to algebraic geometry. She has taught introductory-level calculus courses such as Business Calculus and Calculus and Analytic Geometry 1.

“One of the best aspects of being a TA in the math department is the ability to teach a wide variety of courses and students, so I am excited to branch out into different material as well,” Boyana said.

As an instructor, Boyana believes it is necessary to establish a classroom environment where each individual feels appreciated, respected, and safe before they can learn. Her foremost goal when teaching is to reassure her students that she will support them and advocate for their educational needs. Beyond this, Boyana’s teaching philosophy is guided by three basic tenets: first, teaching is not a “one size fits all” model; second, the best teachers are authentic, accessible, and approachable; and third, the primary job of an educator is to inspire and motivate their students.

“I believe that a strong mathematical foundation is a critical component of a well-rounded education, but I am simultaneously acutely aware of the misconceptions many students hold regarding their capacity to understand math,” Boyana said. “I have worked with many such students, especially while teaching math courses designed for non-STEM majors, who had previously labeled themselves as someone who doesn’t ‘get’ math. As a math teacher, I view it as not only my goal but my obligation to chip away at these preconceptions by emphasizing that anyone can learn math. I strive to create a classroom where students make mistakes, think critically, and ultimately leave feeling confident in their mathematical abilities.”

Boyana added that her teaching philosophy is constantly evolving as she learns from her instructors and peers at UW–Madison and beyond. “I look forward to continuing to grow as an educator,” she said.

Emma Wathen

Emma WathenEmma is pursuing a joint PhD in History and History of Science, Medicine, and Technology. Her dissertation looks at the history of reproduction, disability, and social movements in the late 20th-century United States.

She has been a TA for Bodies, Diseases, and Healers: An Introduction to the History of Medicine; American History to the Civil War Era: The Origin & Growth of the U.S.; International Health and Global Society; and Biology and Society, 1950-Today. She is also a volunteer instructor at Oakhill Correctional Institution for the Wisconsin Prison Humanities Project and will teach her first course as an instructor of record this summer.

“As a disability historian, I am committed to ensuring not only that students receive the accommodations they need to thrive, but also that my discussions and assessments are designed in such a way that dismantles barriers to students’ education and allows them to engage with the course material in the way that best supports their learning. An important part of that is emphasizing that everyone in the classroom brings forward diverse experiences and ideas that constitute valuable sources of knowledge,” Emma said. “That’s actually one of my favorite parts of teaching at UW–Madison. The majority of my students tend to be pursuing STEM or pre-health degrees, and I really enjoy seeing them make connections between the history of medicine and their own work in hospitals, laboratories, and health organizations. My hope is that students will continue this interdisciplinary critical thinking about how the past is reflected in their own communities, from their personal history to the physical environment they inhabit to the media they consume.”

Yeyu Wang

Yeyu WangYeyu Wang is a PhD student in the Department of Educational Psychology in the School of Education. She has a passion for developing research methodologies to analyze multimodal data through learning activities, with the goal of fair and efficient assessments. In particular, she is working on a network-based algorithm called Trans-Modal Analysis.

During her time at UW–Madison, Yeyu has enjoyed being a TA in the master’s program in Learning Analytics within the Department of Educational Psychology for the courses Foundations of Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods, and Learning Analytics Theory and Practice.

“I summarize my teaching philosophies into these three things,” Yeyu said. “First, provide timely feedback. Leaving students in the status of having questions not only impacts their understanding about the next chapter in courses but also brings frustration and demotivation. Second, encourage questions and demo my problem-solving. For students coming from a pure qualitative background, it could be hard to think in the quantitative way. So, I usually demo my thinking process of how to solve a type of problem such as how to resolve an error in R script by Googling the error message. Last, but not least, genuineness, sincerity, and positivity. Instead of thinking of myself as an instructor, I investigate the problem with my students. Sometimes, when I am not sure, I am honest about my innocence. I push them out of their cognitive comfort zone but make this experience joyful by encouraging and giving them credit when solving problems on their own.”

Innovation in Teaching Award

Brendan Dowling

Brendan DowlingBrendan Dowling is a PhD student in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures with interests in Chinese and linguistics. More specifically, Brendan studies sound patterns in Chinese, looking at how different groups of Chinese speakers build rhythm. He is also an advocate of the implementation of hip hop pedagogical methods in K-16 Chinese language and culture classrooms.

Some of the courses Brendan has taught at UW–Madison include language courses ASIALANG 101, 102, 201, and 202, and a humanities course ASIAN 300: Chinese Hip Hop. This summer he will offer a social science course ASIAN 301: Introduction to Chinese Linguistics through Chinese Hip Hop.

When teaching, Brendan finds it important to acknowledge students’ different backgrounds, a critical first step to an inclusive and productive classroom environment. He then keeps this in mind to create teaching materials that make students feel comfortable. Making sure everyone’s voice is heard and no one is left behind is what he strives to achieve each class period. He looks forward to improving his role as an educator throughout the rest of his time at UW–Madison.

Felipe Moraga

Felipe is a PhD candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, specializing in Early Modern Spanish literature of the 16th and 17th centuries. His dissertation focuses on visual and literary studies of monsters, automatons, and emblems in literary works and news pamphlets from the Medieval and Early Modern periods. He also holds PhD minors in Art History and Medieval Studies. He has taught courses on Spanish literature and Spanish language online and in person at all levels, from elementary to advanced. Additionally, he is licensed to teach Spanish at elementary, middle, and high school levels (K-12). He is currently pursuing English as a Second Language (ESL) and Bilingual licenses geared towards teaching heritage/second-generation bilingual students, especially in Dual Language Immersion (DLI) contexts.

As part of his teaching, Felipe takes inspiration from the words of Confucius: “What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand.”

“Creating activities and projects that center around the student and foster their agency and creativity empowers them and helps them find intrinsic motivation to pay attention, participate and experiment. I believe students learn best when their instructor makes the class relevant and considers their unique talents and learning preferences,” Felipe said. “In my classes I like to build community and engage my students in active learning activities, which means ‘putting students at the center of instruction’ (Udvari, 2018) to ‘afford students agency for their learning’ (Lombardi and Shipley, 2021). I am passionate about sharing the culture, history, language, and literatures of Spain and Latin America and it motivates me to witness my students connect it with their own unique intersectional identities, values, and skills.”

“My teaching experience in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese as well as my pedagogical coursework in the School of Education at UW–Madison has equipped me with multiple teaching strategies to spark students’ imagination and curiosity,” Felipe added. “It is important to me to foster meaningful classroom environments in which students can learn content in multimodal ways and engage in higher order thinking as described in Harold Bloom’s taxonomy. Facilitating a fun and inclusive environment enables students to be more confident and active in their learning, allowing more participation, peer collaboration, and stronger student interactions!”

James Osorio

James Carl Lagman OsorioJames Carl Lagman Osorio is a master’s student in piano and historical musicology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He received his undergraduate degree at Roosevelt University with a major in piano performance and a minor in history. Recently, he has presented lecture recitals on inclusive piano pedagogy and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) classical music repertoire around the United States. He is currently working on his MA thesis on music composed within the borders of different kinds of camps, in different locations, during the Second World War.

Previously, he has served as a pianist for numerous ballet schools and companies including the Joffrey Academy of Dance and the American Ballet Theater. He is also a resident music director at Forestburgh Playhouse in New York. He has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician at Ganz Hall, Carnegie Hall, and Harpa Concert Hall. Last year, he won several grants including the Mead Witter School of Music Graduate Student Grant, the Artivism Student Action Program Fund, and the inaugural Joan Spero and C. Michael Spero Graduate Student Award. He currently serves as a teaching assistant for group piano classes for music majors and individual piano instruction for non-music majors at the Mead Witter School of Music under the supervision of Dr. Jessica Johnson. James is a student of Professor Martha Fischer and an advisee of Dr. Nadia Chana.

As an instructor, James has integrated into his curriculum Social Emotional Learning (SEL) techniques; Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) models; and culturally responsive pedagogical models. He empowers students through learning different musical cultures, establishing their own identities, and enforcing solidarity with those who experience various systems of oppression daily.

“I believe that it is my responsibility to guide students to become independent learners, life-long musicians, but most importantly, citizens who are aware of their position as artists in the social world,” James said. “My group piano class strongly believes in diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and representation. Therefore, musical selections are not limited to the Western music canon. Music from different cultures and by underrepresented, historically marginalized, suppressed, and living composers are designated for the overall enrichment of the student. This gives students an opportunity to expand their horizons and expose themselves to the different musical languages that exist around them.”

By working with students on capstone projects, such as a film-scoring exercise where students create a score and video on a subject of their choice, James said he has also learned from his students. “I realized how powerful it is when we center the voices and identities of our students in the class curriculum,” he said. “Centering students’ agency at the core of instruction fosters a safe space where students can make mistakes, reflect, maintain open dialogues, think out loud, and map their routes as musicians and human beings.”

Capstone PhD Teaching Award

Abigail Letak

Abby LetakAbigail is a PhD candidate in Sociology whose work focuses on cultural influences on wellness and identity. Her dissertation is specifically about the intersections of mental health, self-care, disability, and neoliberalism.

She has taught multiple sociology courses as both a TA and Instructor of Record, including introductory courses and electives, such as The Sociological Enterprise and Introductory Social Psychology. She also designed and taught a new elective called The Sociology of Mental Health.

“In my time at UW–Madison, I have learned that effective teaching is not innate, but truly a cultivated skill that requires training, attention to best practices, and personal reflection. Only through such concerted effort have I been able to develop a teaching practice focused on inclusivity, accessibility, and empathy,” Abigail said. “I aim to facilitate learning that allows students to see class time and schoolwork not as separate from—but important components of—’real life.’ To support students, I practice an ethic of care fundamentally based on seeing them holistically as ‘human beings, not human doings.’ As a TA in the Writing Center, I focus on increasing students’ confidence as writers and providing them with tangible tools to use in the writing process.”

Kelsey Schenck

Kelsey SchenckKelsey is a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Psychology’s learning sciences area. Her research focuses on the cognitive and affective spatial processes that impact students’ mathematical thinking and gestures as they reason about geometry. Kelsey’s dissertation investigates whether short, physical spatial interventions can improve geometric thinking and the role that spatial anxiety, gesture, and working memory may play in this intervention.

At UW–Madison, she has taught How People Learn, an introductory course on the theories in the field of learning sciences, and the introductory research methods course Foundations of Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods for the Learning Analytics Master’s Program.

Kelsey’s teaching philosophy includes three main goals: to deliver knowledge to students while generating excitement and interest; to help students develop effective collaboration and communication skills; and to encourage interaction and incorporate a variety of perspectives.

“To accomplish these goals, I draw on my background as a K-12 teacher and as a student myself to craft opportunities for my students to engage deeply with the content and forge meaningful connections within the context of their personal lives,” Kelsey said. “I spend a great deal of time and effort in my classes encouraging my students to tailor assignments and discussions to their personal goals and needs and integrating their feedback and perspectives into my course materials to create a dynamic learning environment.”

Molly Minden

Molly MindenMolly is a PhD candidate in comparative politics at the Department of Political Science studying social movements, the impacts of wartime violence, and human rights in Latin America. Her main research looks at the long-term consequences of civil wars in Latin America, especially Guatemala, and the emergence and trajectory of social movements in the aftermath of civil wars.

At UW–Madison, Molly has been the instructor for the course After Civil Wars: Latin America and Beyond, and a TA for the courses Contentious Politics, Comparative Study of Genocide, and Politics Around the World.

“I really appreciate that many UW–Madison students I have had the privilege to teach are curious, open, and thoughtful,” Molly said. “I have taught alongside some incredible teachers here, where they have supported a collaborative environment and the flexibility to try new ideas and build on each other’s thinking. Together, these communities have provided support for thoughtful, critical, and constructive conversations.”

Ruth Trumble

Ruth TrumbleRuth is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography. As an instructor, she values normalizing the challenges to learning and writing. She conducts qualitative research about the challenges to maintaining sustainable disaster preparedness systems. Her dissertation explores the relationship between local experiences and international aid during and after environmental disasters, specifically the 2014 floods in Serbia. She is also interested in critical pedagogy, geographies of risk, disaster risk reduction education, and privacy rights.

Sara Gabler Thomas

Sara Gabler ThomasSara is a PhD candidate in literary studies in the English Department, specializing in archipelagic American literature and culture, affect studies, and environmental humanities. She has regularly taught Intro to College Composition as well as been a teaching assistant for literature courses such as Wild, Threatened, and Toxic; and Revolutions and Counterrevolutions.

“My teaching philosophy is grounded in two principles: inspire curiosity and foster collaborative thinking,” Sara said. She added that curiosity and collaboration come together, such as when a student of hers reflected, “When our group caught hold of a thread beyond the text, we were given the time to discuss it further…It felt like all of us were rediscovering the text, viewing it differently because of the multiple perspectives represented.”

Dorothy Powelson Teaching Assistant Award

Cara Schwarz

Cara SchwarzCara is a graduate student in Chemistry specializing in chemistry education research. She has been a TA for a variety of organic chemistry lectures and lab courses. In spring 2023, she is a TA for Incarceration & Education, a class in the Department of Educational Policy Studies.

“I try to create a classroom environment where all of my students feel comfortable engaging in conversations and asking questions. Organic chemistry is a tough class, and I want students to feel supported and encouraged throughout the class,” Cara said. “One of my favorite parts of teaching at UW–Madison is getting to work with awesome students and instructors. I’ve learned a lot from my students over the years – they are creative and ask lots of great questions.”

Emily J. Díaz Vallejo

Emily J Diaz VallejoEmily is a PhD student in physical geography with minors in soil sciences and statistics. Her thesis investigates how land-use change influences microbial and biogeochemical dynamics in soils of the tropics. She is a tropical ecosystem ecologist interested in soil biogeochemistry, ecology, and response to disturbances. Her work focuses on understanding how disturbances such as fire, land-use change, and environmental change can affect soil functionality and health.

At UW–Madison, Emily has taught geography and social science/microbiology courses including Physical Systems of the Environment, Environmental Biogeography, and Soil Microbiology and Biochemistry.

Emily said her teaching centers on creating a safe and inclusive space where students can engage, question, and discuss natural sciences.

“In the ever-evolving world of scientific research and technology, it’s essential that students learn to think critically about existing concepts and recognize the historical biases that have shaped our current knowledge,” she said. “By fostering an environment of open dialogue, I encourage students to question their own perspectives and engage with diverse viewpoints. Through these discussions, students develop a deeper understanding of the material and the importance of valuing diversity in the classroom.”

Emily believes teaching is a collaborative effort that blends the instructor’s guidance with the ideas, questions, and interests of the students. By engaging with students in this way, instructors can stimulate critical thinking, encourage intellectual curiosity, and promote respect for others’ opinions.

“With these skills, students are empowered to pursue their life goals and contribute positively to their communities. My goal as an educator is to provide students with the tools they need to approach the world with a critical and curious mindset,” Emily said. “By emphasizing the importance of diverse perspectives and open dialogue, I hope to inspire my students to become lifelong learners who are driven to make a positive impact in their fields and communities.”

Patrick Beaty

Patrick BeatyPatrick is a PhD student in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. His work focuses on mobilizing the inversion of potential vorticity to study rapidly strengthening storm systems which are often associated with large forecast errors.

Patrick has been a TA for Dynamics of the Atmosphere and Ocean II four times, The Frontal Cyclone twice, and Physics of the Atmosphere and Ocean I once. During his undergraduate career, Patrick led a lab session for first-year meteorology-climatology majors.

Patrick’s teaching philosophy is focused on honesty.

“Before any lecture material or course work may begin, the instructor must be honest about their expectations for their students during the semester. In turn, students must be honest with the instructor about the effort and dedication they are willing to dedicate to the course over the semester,” he said. “Once an open dialogue has been established, a synergy will exist between the instructor and their students which allows for the highest levels of learning to occur. A successful semester of learning is one in which both the students and the instructor struggle together with a determined mindset and a promise to themselves that they will succeed with an honest effort.”

Alan Lee

Alan LeeAlan Lee is a dissertator in the Department of Anthropology who studies the archaeology of blacksmithing and ironworking in early historic South Asia. His research will combine chemical, material, and image analysis to understand how ancient blacksmiths helped create monumental architecture during this pivotal period in South Asian history.

Alan has taught seven different courses over twelve semesters in both the chemistry and anthropology departments. He has helped conduct multiple international educational workshops on experimental iron smelting. He is also a volunteer with the Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project (UW-MIARIP) team whose mission is to repatriate MIA American service members back to their families in the United States.

His teaching philosophy is to bring the energy and spirit to the classroom that encourages students to believe in their abilities and embrace any challenge.

Soren Ormseth

Soren OrmsethSoren is a graduate student in the Department of Physics specializing in detector physics. He has taught intermediate physics lab and intermediate electronics lab.

“The best teachers hone their communication skills to make subject material and lessons interesting, relevant, well organized, and right at that difficulty-sweet-spot. At the end of the day though, every student has their own unique way of looking at the world and engaging with a particular topic,” Soren said. “When it comes time to deliver a lecture, write a textbook, or create a presentation, a teacher needs to work on those communication skills. But when it comes time to engage with an individual student, the best thing that a teacher can do is be approachable, flexible, and willing to listen with the intent to understand the student’s perspective. Mastering these two teaching modes is a lifelong journey which never stops!”

Excellence in Community-Based Learning Teaching Award

Vivien Ahrens

Vivien AhrensVivien Ahrens is a PhD candidate in Civil Society and Community Studies. She works with participatory research and evaluation methods, with a special focus on community-based youth programs. She investigates how program evaluation can be used as a tool to foster critical consciousness building and strengthen asset-based narratives about youth of color.

At UW–Madison, Vivien has been a TA for Community-Based Research and Evaluation, the capstone class Community Issues and Action, and Entrepreneurialism and Society.

In the classroom, she tries to “model a trust-based, collaborative approach” to teaching.

“I aim to create a space where our experiences, perspectives, and questions can be shared and acknowledged, allowing us to address them more intentionally,” Vivien said. “I also try to get to know my students individually and respond to their strengths, needs, and interests – in the classroom, during one-on-one check-ins, and through open co-working spaces. I take students’ learning and professional development seriously and strive for them to do the same.”