MU Professor Meera Chandrasekhar awarded $250,000 teaching award

Saturday, January 18, 2014 | 5:58 p.m. CST; updated 12:34 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 21, 2014

COLUMBIA — Although the teaching profession is not known for high salaries, sometimes a passion for teaching pays off.

Meera Chandrasekhar, MU curator's teaching professor of physics, was awarded the 2014 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching by Baylor University on Thursday.

She received $250,000 personally, and an additional $25,000 will go to the MU Department of Physics and Astronomy. In the spring semester of 2015, Chandrasekhar will teach in residence at Baylor in Waco, Texas, where she will also receive a furnished apartment.

She said she is not sure what she will use the money for and she is still very surprised.

Chandrasekhar was named as one of three finalists for the Cherry Award and received $15,000 for personal use and $10,000 for her department in April.

The biannual Cherry Award was created in 1991 by Baylor alumnus Robert Foster Cherry, who wanted to connect Baylor students with influential educators.

Chandrasekhar earned a doctorate in physics from Brown University and has been a professor of physics at MU since 1988.

She was previously awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching and MU's William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence, according to her university website.

Michael W. Thompson, Robert Foster Cherry Award Committee chair and Baylor professor, said it is the award with the largest prize in North America, as far as he knows. 

"It is very prestigious to be selected as the Cherry Award recipient," Thompson said. "The pool of nominees for the award is very strong with many great and talented teachers."

The process involves letters from students and a written letter of nomination, usually from a colleague or dean. Chandrasekhar was nominated by James Spain, MU vice provost for undergraduate studies.

The selection process is always very difficult, but Chandrasekhar stood out because of her track record of teaching excellence and because of the strong letters of support from her students, Thompson said.

"We are interested in the impact that great teaching has had on students," he said. "Dr. Chandrasekhar has a calming presence in the classroom that draws people in and makes physics understandable."

After all the applications are in, a committee representing a variety of academic disciplines then selects three finalists who visit Baylor.

Chandrasekhar visited Baylor in October 2013 for three days and taught two classes. She also presented a public lecture attended by more than 200 people.

She said Baylor is a friendly school and that she is looking forward to teaching there in the spring of 2015.

"The people were very welcoming and worked hard to make the visit worthwhile," Chandrasekhar said. "I got to meet students, faculty and people from different areas."

She is also interested in the education of young students as a founder of Physics First, a project that enhances the education of ninth-grade science students. It is a partnership between MU and 37 Missouri school districts and is funded by a grant from National Science Foundation. Chandrasekhar said she is very proud of the program and the collaboration that has occurred to make it a success.

"Over the past 20 years I have had a strong interest in science teaching for pre-college students and have been involved in creating programs for schools in Missouri," Chandrasekhar said.

She said her greatest joy in life is interacting with students.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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