Chemistry Professor Recognized for Dedication to Students
Aug. 10, 2015
Dr. Mihaela Stefan, associate professor of chemistry and bioengineering, received the 2015 Provost’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Undergraduate Research Mentoring at Honors Convocation. Last year, she was recognized with the President's Outstanding Teaching Award.
While she was pursuing her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in Romania, Dr. Mihaela Stefan had doubts over whether she truly enjoyed her field of study.
It wasn’t until her junior year, when she encountered the hands-on approach of a professor for the first time, that she understood the importance of quality teachers.
“He used to teach technology of polymers, and when I saw him teach for the first time, I couldn’t believe how clear the topics started to become,” Stefan said. “That was one of the first pleasant experiences I had with a college professor.”
Stefan, an associate professor of chemistry and bioengineering, has taken that experience to heart as evidenced by her latest accolade — the 2015 Provost’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Undergraduate Research Mentoring — which she received at the Honors Convocation.
Created by the Office of Undergraduate Education and the Office of the Provost, the award recognizes a faculty member who demonstrates leadership and support toward the development of undergraduate students and their research goals.
It was during Stefan’s time as a student that she realized the impact an engaging teacher can make. After what seemed like a never-ending run of dry, by-the-book professors, she encountered professors who encouraged her to ask questions and start dialogues.
“From the first time I met Dr. Stefan, she was extremely kind and easy to talk to. She has an open-door policy for all students who need help or are interested in getting more involved with organic chemistry.”
But no one had as much of an impact on her mentoring style as Dr. Richard McCullough, her postdoctoral advisor at Carnegie Mellon University.
“In a certain way, everything that I do — when I teach or when I work with my students — I always hope that I will not disappoint him,” she said. “I hope one day my students can say about me what I say about my former advisor.”
Since joining UT Dallas in 2007, Stefan has mentored more than 60 undergraduate students. She also teaches graduate courses.
She said she has a good eye for gauging student interest and understands that everyone learns differently. She tries to stick to a personalized approach to teaching.
“I feel I age more slowly because of my students,” Stefan said. “I think that I’m more open-minded because of them. I don’t want my students to fit in a box because I think that’s the right way. Even as a group, we have different cultures, and we function very well. We learn from each other, and it’s a constant process.”
Biology senior Jack Webb said he had heard about Stefan’s knack for teaching organic chemistry. Webb attempted — unsuccessfully — to tweak his course plan to take her class. But when an opportunity to join Stefan’s drug delivery project arose, he pounced on it.
“I found it fascinating, so I had to try and get involved with it. From the first time I met Dr. Stefan, she was extremely kind and easy to talk to,” Webb said. “She has an open-door policy for all students who need help or are interested in getting more involved with organic chemistry.”
He said joining Stefan’s research group has been a highlight of his time at UT Dallas.
Stefan said that if there’s a particular narrative that she rejects wholeheartedly it’s the either-or dictum of professors tasked with doing research and educating students.
“I don’t ever want to buy into that,” she said. “I think teaching and research go hand in hand. There’s no reason to exclude one from the other.”
She enjoys getting in the lab and blending in with her students, especially in the summer. She said chemistry is learned best through curiosity, and she notes the positive attitude students — especially undergrads — exude in the scientific process. They are one of her utmost motivations, she said.
“My husband has a saying; ‘When we come to work, you come running. When we leave, I take you dragging,’” joked Stefan, whose husband, Dr. Michael Biewer, is an associate professor of chemistry. “I consider myself very lucky. I don’t know how many times I’ve made the right choice in my life, but picking an academic career was the right move for me. It’s where I’m supposed to be.”