Two mathematics graduate students—Marissa Chesser and Mina Nahvi—have been named recipients of the LAS Dean’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching by Graduate Teaching Assistants.
Chesser joined the Department of Mathematics as a graduate student in 2017, earning her master’s degree in 2019. Now she is a PhD candidate in mathematics, anticipating her doctoral degree this May. During her time at Illinois, she has made many important contributions to the department: she taught mathematics for the Merit Program for Emerging Scholars, a student success initiative that aims to retain students in STEM majors by creating a community of scholars; she volunteered for a mentoring network that the Merit Program recently piloted; she helped develop an undergraduate research project for the Illinois Geometry Lab (IGL); she assisted with academic advising to incoming mathematics, computer science, and actuarial science majors; and she led mathematics outreach activities for middle and high school girls.
Chesser has also served as a head teaching assistant (TA) for Calculus III and Precalculus, a role that required her to supervise and mentor undergraduate classroom assistants, providing them with more explicit explanations of complex topics, suggesting classroom management ideas, and facilitating grading issues.
According to the committee that nominated her for the award, Chesser’s outstanding performance as Head TA landed her with a unique teaching assignment: she was the first graduate student at Illinois to teach Math 117, Elementary Mathematics—a course traditionally taught by specialized faculty. In this role, she was tasked with using a flipped classroom approach. The nominators noted that Marissa very successfully implemented this atypical style of teaching into Math 117, citing positive student feedback from her course.
Chesser regularly appears on the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent at University of Illinois. In Fall 2022, she received the Brahana TA Instructional Award from the Department of Mathematics. She has also received multiple university-affiliated fellowships.
Nahvi is a fifth-year PhD candidate in mathematics also pursuing a master’s degree in the teaching of mathematics. She came to Illinois after receiving her master’s degree in mathematics at the Sharif University of Technology.
In the past year Nahvi served as a mentor for undergraduates in the Merit Mentoring and Professional Network, supervised an undergraduate research project through the Illinois Geometry Lab, and earned the Graduate College Mentoring Certificate. She has been active in the local chapter of Association for Women in Mathematics, serving as its president for a year. She has also served on the department’s Climate, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. This spring, she is the STEM Workshops Program Facilitator for the Education Justice Project.
Nahvi has served as a TA for Fundamental Mathematics three times, and in summer 2022, she was the standalone instructor for a section of Calculus I. As a TA, Nahvi has also taught other courses in the Calculus sequence. Many of the classes she teaches are for Math Merit students. The Department of Mathematics Prize Committee, which nominated her for this award, says that Nahvi excels at teaching students with diverse academic backgrounds: “Many students [in the calculus sequence] may not be naturally drawn to mathematics, while students in Math 347 have chosen (or are seriously considering) mathematics as a major or minor…her teaching is equally well received by these groups of students.”
In 2021, Nahvi received the Department of Mathematics Impact Award in recognition of her work that substantially improved the welfare of members of the math community during the pandemic: during phases of the COVID-19 pandemic when courses were exclusively taught online, she co-founded a mentoring program for graduate students in the department. Her work has been published in the European Journal of Combinatorics, the Siberian Mathematical Journal, and Discrete Mathematics, among others.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Nahvi co-founded a mentoring program for teaching assistants in the mathematics department. The mentoring program was for all graduate students.