May 8, 2020

Simon Goodacre | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) has awarded six University Prize Instructorships to seven doctoral students in Molecular and Cell Biology, Politics, Neuroscience and Sociology. Recipients will receive $6,000 to design and teach their own courses for undergraduate students.

Applicants for the University Prize Instructorship submit their courses for review by a faculty committee and are evaluated based on their syllabus, recommendation letters and teaching fellow evaluations. Their department chairs determine whether the proposed courses will be a worthwhile addition to the department’s existing course lineup.

The development of teaching skills is an important part of an education at GSAS, and this award is intended to enhance the school’s commitment to pedagogy. "The University Prize Instructorship is one of my favorite awards," says Dean Eric Chasalow. "It presents a win-win for Brandeis, providing our graduate students with an opportunity to design and teach their own course and allowing the University to offer exciting new courses for our undergraduate students." 

Read about the courses and recipients below:


Mika Hackner, Politics

How Democracies Break Down

"How Democracies Break Down" will examine how and why democracies collapse. Together, students shall examine arguments for why collapses, or ‘breakdowns,’ occur and when breakdowns are likely to occur. Students shall determine which factors are most important in causing democracies to weaken or breakdown. Students shall question whether or not extreme political polarization within a democratic regime necessarily leads to the weakening of democratic norms. Students shall critically engage with major themes in the literature of democratic breakdown – such as trust in political elites and institutions, the roles and structures of political institutions, restrictions on political participation, and the question of civil liberties. Applying these themes to cases, students will be able to make claims about their limitations or utility. Students will be able to evaluate claims of weakened democracy (or ‘democratic erosion’) and democratic breakdown in contemporary political contexts. "How Democracies Break Down" will afford students the opportunity to delve beyond the headlines and popular discourse, and engage with a timely and fascinating topic from a rigorous, academic perspective. My course shall provide students with the tools to diagnose the health of democracy, at home and abroad.

Raul Ramos and Emmanuel J Rivera, Neuroscience

The Neurobiology of Somatosensation: How We Feel the World

Somatosensation is often understood to be our body’s ability to perceive touch. However, it is so much more than that. The somatosensory system is an incredibly complex one made up of a variety of sensory neurons and neural circuits that span the entirety of our skin, project to our spinal cord, and are relayed to the brain for further processing. The somatosensory system contains 5 broad classes of sensory receptors including mechanoreceptors, nociceptors, proprioceptors, thermoreceptors, and chemoreceptors. This diverse set of sensory receptors support all the different somatic senses that allow us, and all living things, to experience and feel our world. The somatic senses are critical for several essential and intimate human behaviors such as feeding, breathing, child-rearing, social bonding, pain avoidance and so much more. Indeed, mutations in mechanotransducers (stretch receptors) can result in death and people who are more insensitive to pain often live shorter lives. It is because of this unique multi-modal richness and its necessity to life and the human experience that we propose this class on somatosensation. For our course, we have designed a syllabus that will cover a broad scope of the different modalities that fall under the umbrella of somatosensation. We specifically aim to discuss the topics of mechanotransduction, touch, itch, pain, thermosensation, and diseases of the somatosensory system.

Ann Ward, Sociology

From Environmental Justice to Climate Justice: Power, Inequality and the Natural World

In this course, students will explore the concepts of environmental justice and climate justice with a particular focus on the relationship between power, inequality, and the natural world. While the words are often used interchangeably, the intertwined and historically mediated relationship between climate justice and environmental justice is usually left unexplored. To engage in this comparison, we will first focus on the historical development of environmental justice as a social movement and as an academic concept. We will then explore climate justice through the lens of collective actors, who are documenting the fight for climate justice as it unfolds in front of us. With an emphasis on building a space for collaborative co-learning and discussion, this course was designed to facilitate learning as an active process, rather than a static transfer of information. At its core, I hope this course allows students to examine their own personal experience and realize we all move through the world in unique, but structured ways.

Jennifer LaFleur, Sociology & Social Policy

Geographies of Inequality: Exploring Power and Space in the United States

Using scholarship focusing on the United States, the primary goal of this course is to give students tools to explore the spatial nature of social life on multiple scales. From residential segregation to educational opportunity, we will engage with texts that help us understand how the differential distribution of power in the U.S. has both subtle and explicit expression in space. This course will give students exposure to methods that allow them to unpack how the physical arrangement of people and resources is neither random nor or a matter of mere personal preference. Materials and assignments will illustrate not only the contours of structural patterns of inequality, but their historical origins in American political economy.

Alyssa Fassett-Carman, Neuroscience

Reactivity and Resilience: Links Between Stress and Internalizing Disorders

Stress is ubiquitous, and mood and anxiety disorders are highly prevalent. Brandeis students know this all too well, as college is a period of heightened stress and increased risk for these disorders. Life stress is a strong predictor of mental health problems, and as I began my work in the CoPE and SIM Labs at Brandeis University, I became fascinated with this link; – why are some people reactive to stress while others are resilient? When does stress lead to an adaptive response, and when does it lead to disorder? My dissertation research focuses on one aspect of this link, how our perceptions of stressors shape their neurobiological and psychological impact, but I am proposing a course that will focus more broadly on relations between stress and mood and anxiety disorders.

Joyce Rigal, Molecular and Cell Biology

Molecular Diagnostics: Developing Molecular Tools to Detect Disease

“Molecular Diagnostics: Developing molecular tools to detect disease” is a course designed for upper level advanced undergraduates majoring in Biology, HSSP, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry. Students aiming to go to medical or graduate school are highly encouraged to take it. Students will learn how to apply molecular biology techniques to diagnose a wide spectrum of diseases, ranging from genetic diseases to infectious illness generated by pathogens. The global impact of molecular diagnostic tools will be examined, and we will center on the potential they have to improve health care in developing countries. Throughout a semester long integrative team project, students will research a disease and utilize their molecular diagnostic knowledge to design and propose a molecular diagnostic test.