Two Princeton professors to receive Phi Beta Kappa teaching awards

May 29, 2014 2:45 p.m.

The Princeton University chapter of Phi Beta Kappa will give its annual awards for excellence in undergraduate teaching to Bonnie Bassler, the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology, and Peter Sarnak, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics.

The awards will be presented at the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, which will be held at 8:45 a.m. Monday, June 2, in Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, prior to the graduating seniors' Class Day ceremony. Sarnak will be traveling, so mathematics graduate student Ryan Peckner will accept the award on his behalf.

Princeton students elected to the academic honor society have selected recipients of the teaching prize annually since 2004. The students define the criteria for excellence in teaching as skill in instruction, commitment to working with and building relationships with undergraduates, and ability to spark students' intellectual interests. Each winner is presented with a plaque.

Bassler, the chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, joined the Princeton faculty in 1994. The Bassler lab focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms that bacteria use to communicate and developing related molecules that could be used as anti-microbial drugs.

"In the midst of making so many contributions to the world of science, Professor Bassler has also remained an outstanding teacher and mentor for undergraduate students both within and outside the scientific disciplines," senior Timothy Keyes wrote in his commendation.

As director of Princeton's Council on Science and Technology from 2008 to 2013, Bassler helped create courses that demonstrated the relevance of scientific research to daily life. She co-teaches one of the courses, "From DNA to Human Complexity," which has the highest student evaluations of any introductory course in the physical or biological sciences. She also infuses her teaching and advising with "immense passion" that is "infectious," Keyes wrote.

Bassler is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and 2002 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also known as a "genius grant." Bassler earned her bachelor's degree in biochemistry from the University of California-Davis, and her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University.

Sarnak, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1991, focuses primarily on analysis and number theory, and his work has uncovered connections between various fields of mathematics and between mathematics and other disciplines.

In his commendation, senior Daniel Kriz wrote: "Perhaps my favorite undergraduate math class at Princeton was MAT 415 Analytic Number Theory. … [Professor Sarnak] always paid careful attention to make sure the entire class was up to speed during lecture, and the assigned problem sets which he personally devised were not only illuminating and thought-provoking, but (dare I say) fun as well. Moreover, he was more than willing to go over material both after lecture and outside the classroom; I have not met another instructor so happy to meet outside of class, sit down and point to exactly where, how and why my proof was wrong."

Sarnak is the recipient of many honors, including the Ostrowski Prize recognizing outstanding mathematical achievement and the Frank Nelson Cole Prize in Number Theory, and he will accept the Wolf Prize in Mathematics on June 1 in Israel.

He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Sarnak completed his undergraduate study at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and his Ph.D. at Stanford University.