Congratulations to Joanna Larson, graduate student of ecology and evolutionary biology, for her Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award for 2020 by the Rackham Graduate School.

Larson was one of 20 chosen from among an impressive group of nominees, representing schools and colleges across the University of Michigan. The awards recognize the efforts and accomplishments of GSIs who demonstrate extraordinary dedication and excellence as teachers. Larson is advised by Professor Dan Rabosky.

Larson has been a GSI for four different courses including Introductory Biology (BIO 171), Vertebrate Evolution and Diversity (BIO 252), Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles (EEB 450), and Mammals (EEB 451). “As demonstrated by the breadth of these courses, and Joanna’s impeccable teaching evaluations, she is very effective at innovating organismal courses. A great example of this involves her assessment and revision of an EEB 450 Biology of Reptiles lab section,” a nomination letter by EEB Professor Stephen Smith, associate chair for undergraduate studies, states. “The students overwhelmingly agreed that the labs were fantastic and improved their understanding of the lecture material.”

Professor Alison Davis Rabosky, who taught Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles, wrote, “This was the first time the class had been run since winter 2012 (before I moved to U-M), and she and I had to develop 100 percent of the materials de novo for both lecture and lab – it was a huge amount of work for both of us. Joanna was a fantastic co-instructor in all respects, including coming in on weekends with me to prototype new labs, hauling dozens of huge tanks full of giant turtles and snakes between BSB and USB, and running extra review sessions above and beyond the call of duty. Two of the labs we designed were Authentic Research Connection styled labs based entirely on her dissertation work. Both were incredibly creative (one on identifying invertebrates in her frog vomit and one a simulated trapping event for Peruvian herpetofauna based on her real collections), and both were cited in the course reviews as being true highlights of the course.”

Joanna Larson on a boat after snorkeling in Lake Malawi, Tanzania, to see cichlids. She was on a Fulbright (2012). Image: Nora Lewin.

“I am very appreciative that I was nominated for this award and that I have had the chance to teach with several faculty in the past few years from whom I have learned a great deal,” said Larson. “It has been a privilege for me to teach diversity labs at Michigan using the incredible U-M Museum of Zoology collections and be able to share my enthusiasm about natural history with students.” 

Larson is pursuing an outstanding dissertation while demonstrating exceptional experience and leadership in mentoring, outreach and teaching. She has been especially dedicated to promoting access for women in science, with extensive experience in the U-M chapter of Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and Sciences (FEMMES) program.

Larson’s teaching evaluations speak for themselves. She’s demonstrated herself to be one of the finest graduate student instructors in organismal biology. When asked whether the labs that Larson designed deepened their understanding, one student’s response was, “Absolutely, 100%! This class is genuinely the coolest course I’ve taken in college.”

That an EEB graduate student has won this award four years in a row is a special point of pride for the department. Recent EEB winners of the award include Jill Myers (2019), Lisa Walsh (2018) and Thomas Jenkinson (2017). Previous winners of the Outstanding GSI award from EEB were: Ryan Bebej (2009), Krista McGuire (2007), Zach Miller (2006), Prosanta Chakrabarty and Keith Pecor (2005), Katia Koelle (2004), and many others who won prior to the restructuring of the department.

About Rackham's Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Awards