Chemical Engineering professor is first to win Thomas E. Hutchinson Award for debut class

Classroom 005 in the University of Virginia Chemical Engineering Building is big, with tiered seat rows curving around the dais, so the instructor looks up at the students. Anyone could have felt swallowed up in that setting on the first day of the first full university course she had ever taught.

Rachel Letteri didn’t. When she gazed up at the 55 faces peering back at her at the start of the 2018 fall semester, she saw second-year chemE majors, most of them about to undertake the biggest challenge of their academic careers. What she felt in that moment was her responsibility to see them through it.

She did, and they thanked her for it. Letteri is the newest recipient of the Thomas E. Hutchinson Award, presented annually by UVA’s Trigon Engineering Society for “Outreach to students, enthusiastic lectures, obvious love of teaching, and contributions to the Engineering School.” Trigon coordinates the selection process, but nominations and voting for the award are open to all engineering students.

Headshot of Rachel Letteri

Letteri, who started as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Chemical Engineering Department in August 2018, set a speed record: Since the award’s creation in 2006, no first-year faculty member had won it. A few minutes of conversation with Letteri explains a lot about why students chose her.

To start with, she was ecstatic to be assigned Material and Energy Balances, the first course in the chemical engineering curriculum. Letteri knows it’s a big job, because what students learn in that course forms the foundation for everything that follows. She also knows that year two is difficult for chemE majors.

“For a lot of them, Material and Energy Balances is their first real engineering class,” she said. “The entire second year, they’re adjusting to the new content and rigor of engineering courses.”

It’s not uncommon for students to switch majors when they feel overwhelmed. It doesn’t have to be that way, Letteri insists, because there is so much students can do and contribute with a chemical engineering degree.

“If students decide chemE is not for them because they don’t like it, that’s one thing. But if they’re willing to put in the work and all they need is a little support, that’s a cool thing to be able to give them. Not go easy on them, just give them a little bit of encouragement,” Letteri said.

Her first group of UVA students clearly appreciated her approach.

“She had a profound impact on all of us by being a relatable and passionate professor,” Peter Sepulveda said. “She was responsible for introducing us to chemical engineering, but she did more than just teach us material and energy balances. She made it a point to relate our coursework to the field of chemE by encouraging us to attend AICHE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers) events and to get involved in research.”

Anna Winter said Letteri was very aware of the crazy lives college students lead, and made a point of offering extra office hours and meeting times. She engaged them outside the classroom, too, inviting them to events on Grounds and attending a student’s symphony concert. She even organized a lunch reunion this spring.

Nick Hoessle, who, like Winter and Sepulveda, is a second-year student and Trigon member, said they nominated Letteri and then spread the word to as many students as they could.

“Non-Trigon engineers jumped at the chance to support her,” Hoessle said. “She was an effective lecturer and always took the time to make sure everyone was able to understand what was going on in class. The dedication and love for the subject that she brought to every class and every meeting was the driving factor behind us wanting to nominate her.”

Pamela M. Norris, UVA Engineering Executive Dean and Frederick Tracy Morse Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, attended the dinner in the Rotunda when a stunned Letteri received the Hutchinson Award. Norris is director of UVA CHARGE, a National Science Foundation ADVANCE program to increase the participation of women in faculty positions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in higher education.

“It’s incredibly important to have role models like Professor Letteri,” Norris said. “She has demonstrated not just talent and passion for teaching and research, but persistence, creative thinking and empathy for others. We want all of our students, who are tomorrow’s engineering leaders, to embrace those qualities.

“It is also critical for students from groups traditionally underrepresented in engineering, including women, to be taught by professors they can identify with. It is our good fortune to have someone with Professor Letteri’s abilities to connect so readily with all students.”

When Letteri was interviewing, she said UVA attracted her because there is so much excitement around cross-cutting research in soft materials and a complimentary environment that facilitates collaboration.

“We make materials in the polymer biomaterials lab, and then we can walk down the hall and give them to experts in cell-material interactions to test how cells grow on and in them,” she said. “There’s a nice feedback loop between material design and cell behavior that helps us to learn how to improve materials for medicine.”

But during the hiring process she also noted UVA’s emphasis on teaching, which was equally important to her. Her experience since has borne out her initial impressions, starting with guidance and notes from Gary Koenig, associate professor in the Chemical Engineering Department. He taught Material and Energy Balances last and garnered his own teaching award. He was always available to answer Letteri’s questions.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better teaching mentor. He deserves a lot of credit,” Letteri said.

UVA Engineering Dean Craig Benson said teaching excellence is central to the School’s mission to prepare engineering leaders to solve global challenges.

“Professor Letteri exemplifies what we value as educators. Students saw her drive to help them succeed, her commitment to ensuring their grasp of the material, and her collegial approach to both research and teaching, and they responded,” Benson said. “Her skill and dedication as a teacher and researcher will help UVA Engineering continue to make the world a better place. I am very proud of what she has already accomplished and look forward to more.”

For her part, Letteri believes she is a better teacher now because of her students. They were never afraid to ask questions, and provided substantive suggestions to improve the class.

“It especially benefited me as a first-year instructor to have them be so honest and forthcoming with constructive criticism and questions,” she said. “The award was a total surprise and huge honor, because I learned more from the students than probably they did from me, and it was just an absolute pleasure working with them. I’m looking forward to teaching this class again in the fall and making it way better as a result of everything they taught me.”

If Letteri was quick to deflect praise, her department chair, William Epling, was eager to give it.

“Rachel is modest,” Epling said. “But what she has achieved in so short a time is astounding. Speaking for chemE, we’re just glad she’s ours.”