Yale Prize Teaching Fellowship, 2013-2014  web version

Yale Prize Teaching Fellowship, 2011-2012  web version


Let me be blunt — I enjoy teaching and mentoring students. I enjoy giving lectures which feature a healthy conversation between the students and the instructor. I enjoy assisting students achieve a deep understanding of a subject, and, most of all, I enjoy guiding students through the difficult process of conducting original research. Luckily, by all accounts, the students I've interacted with seem to be equally appreciative of my approach to teaching and mentoring. I had the privilege of teaching all twelve semesters while I was a graduate student at Yale, and my evaluations from the students at the end of each semester are riddled with comments such as, "Alex was unquestionably the best TA I have ever had. Not only was he extremely intelligent and capable, but he actually cared about being the best TA he could be" [Fall – 2011]. Moreover, I was twice awarded the Yale Prize Teaching Fellowship, a university- wide award only given to a handful of graduate student teaching assistants each year based on written nominations by the undergraduate students. In addition to teaching, currently at Pennsylvania State University I'm directing a subgroup of two graduate students within Prof. Mikael Rechtsman's group on a broad range of research topics in designing and fabricating 3D photonic structures. I've also had the opportunity to be the direct mentor for three senior undergraduate students working on research projects: one with Prof. A. Douglas Stone's group at Yale developing computational algorithms, one with Prof. Shanhui Fan's group at Stanford working on the optical properties of eutectic salts, and one with Prof. Mikael Rechtsman's group at Penn State on finding bound states in the continuum in systems with low index contrast. Taken together, I believe these experiences have prepared me to be an excellent teacher and mentor to graduate and undergraduate students alike.

My primary goal when teaching is to ensure that the students are actively engaged in the discussion of the material at hand. I aim to achieve this goal in three ways. First, I attempt to make as much of the material as possible question-driven, ideally through the use of flipped-classroom techniques, so that the students are personally responsible for finding the gaps in their understanding. Second, I try to encourage the to students view our interactions as informal affairs, reducing their hesitation to ask questions or come to office hours for help. Finally, I endeavor to provide thorough, well-prepared lectures and in-class worksheets, alongside challenging homework assignments, at a brisk pace so that questions are inevitable. Although this basic formula needs to be tailored to the level of the material being taught, I've found it to be an excellent set of guidelines in my experience as a teaching assistant for both introductory and advanced level undergraduate courses.

To give an example of this teaching philosophy in action, when I was holding review sessions or office hours as a teaching assistant at Yale, I would rarely show every step required to solve a homework problem. Instead, I would ask the students where they encountered difficulties in each problem, and we'd discuss the underlying physical concepts and associated mathematical techniques required to solve that particular step, but without continuing to solve the remainder of the problem. The students appreciated this approach, and one student from Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics commented on it in my evaluations, "His problem sessions were well prepared for and organized, and he treaded the thin line between being as helpful as possible, and just giving away answers, with deftness" [Fall – 2011]. I used a similar approach while teaching a section of General Physics Laboratory, an introductory course aimed at non-physics majors, which led one student to write, "Alex was amazing… He answered even the dumbest questions in class in a way that forced you to understand the answer rather than just telling you what it was" [Spring – 2009].

This teaching philosophy of promoting discussion-driven instruction also provides the foundation to my approach for mentoring students. Of course, the goal when mentoring graduate students is to develop independent and creative researchers, able to generate their own research questions. Thus, even though I think it is a good idea to give graduate students a relatively straightforward introductory project, a mentor does the student a disservice by simply providing the answers to every problem that the student faces during this initial phase, as part of learning to be an independent researcher is developing the necessary self-confidence in one's scientific ability. However, this necessity to learn independence must always be balanced by the mentor's experience to ensure that the student is not floundering aimlessly. Thus, a healthy conversation is required between the mentor and mentee, such that the student is given enough guidance to be able to make reasonable progress, while also being given the freedom to develop into a capable scientist.

To conclude, I highly value the importance of pedagogy, and I view teaching and mentoring as an ongoing conversation with my students. I respect the dignity of each individual and have learned from experience that the students must have ample opportunities to actively participate in a manner that they feel comfortable and secure. As such, my overarching goal is to create an environment in which they are confident to engage with both the material or research problem and me. In the future, I am interested in using more active learning techniques when I teach. As an example, while I was at Stanford, I attended a workshop chaired by physics Profs. Monika Schleier-Smith and Jason Hogan, who shared their experiences using guided worksheets and discussion instead of lecturing. I'm eager to apply and suitably modify this apparently effective technique.


Responses are given anonymously by students at the end of the semester, before they receive their grade, and are not revealed to the professor and teaching assistant until after grades are finalized. Students can opt out of responding to this online survey.

Physics 420: Fall 2013 -  PDF download ,  Fall 2012 -  PDF download ,  Fall 2011 -  PDF download ,

Physics 549: Spring 2013 -  PDF download

Physics 165/166: Spring 2012 -  PDF download ,  Spring 2010 -  PDF download ,  Fall 2009 -  PDF download

Physics 410: Fall 2010 -  PDF download


Undergraduate Research Advisor

Designed and advised Kanchita Klangboonkrong's research project at Pennsylvania State University on finding bound states in the continuum in structures with low refractive index contrast.

Undergraduate Summer Research Mentor

Mentored Jason Frost's summer research project at Stanford University on exploring the optical properties of meta-materials comprised of eutectic materials with a phonon-polariton response, such as AgCl and KCl.

Undergraduate Senior Thesis Mentor

Mentored Kevin Lai's senior thesis project at Yale University on migrating the SALT algorithm to C and interfacing with the PETSc scientific library.
2012-2013 academic year.

Davenport Residential College Graduate Affiliate

Organize and run events, such as making Liquid Nitrogen ice cream, for members of Davenport College.
Fall 2010 to Spring 2015.

Davenport Affiliate Coordinator

Oversees the Graduate Affiliate program for Davenport College, organizing and supervising study breaks and other community events.
Fall 2011 to Spring 2014.

Davenport Mellon Forum Steering Committee Member

Works with the Senior Mellon Forum Committee to rehearse and advise seniors presenting their final projects to the forum.
Fall 2013 to Spring 2015.

Yale University - Engineering 194: Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations with Applications

Introductory level course.
Teaching assistant, Spring 2015.
I have designed homework and exam questions for this course.

Yale University - Physics 420: Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics

Junior level course.
Teaching assistant, Fall 2014, Fall 2013, Fall 2012, Fall 2011.
I have designed homework and exam questions for this course.

Yale University - Physics 430: Electromagnetic Fields and Optics

Junior level course.
Teaching assistant, Spring 2014.

Yale University - Physics 549: Solid-State Physics II

Graduate level course.
Teaching assistant, Spring 2013.

Yale University - Physics 165/166: General Physics Laboratory

Introductory level course.
Teaching assistant, Spring 2012, Spring 2010, Fall 2009.

Yale University - Physics 502: Electromagnetic Theory I

Graduate level course.
Teaching assistant, Spring 2011.

Yale University - Physics 420: Classical Mechanics

Junior level course.
Teaching assistant, Fall 2010.