Professor Louie Yang at the Bohart Museum of Entomology
Professor Louie Yang participating in a Bohart Museum of Entomology open house on monarchs. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Professor Louie Yang: Academic Senate's Distinguished Teaching Award

Community Ecologist Praised as Outstanding Teacher, Mentor, and Strong Advocate for Students

Professor Louie Yang in his Briggs Hall office
Professor Louie Yang in his Briggs Hall office

Community ecologist Louie Yang, a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology professor known as  “a phenomenal  teacher, mentor and an incredibly strong advocate for students” is the recipient of the UC Davis Academic Senate’s 2024 Distinguished Teaching Award, Undergraduate Student Level.

“I have watched him engage, inspire, and challenge his students, fostering creative and critical thinking like no one else I’ve ever seen,” Joanna Chiu, professor and chair of the department, wrote in her nomination letter. “We deeply appreciate and admire his innovative and inclusive teaching, his exemplary work ethic, his welcoming demeanor, his dedication to his students, and his nationally recognized ecology expertise. Louie has received many well-deserved teaching and mentoring awards for his teaching contributions on and off campus.”

Professor Yang is one of the three co-founders and co-directors (along with Professor Chiu and UC Davis distinguished professor Jay Rosenheim) of the campuswide, one-of-a-kind Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology (RSPIB), launched in 2011 to help students learn cutting-edge research through close mentoring relationships with faculty.

Joanna Chiu, professor and chair, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology
Joanna Chiu, professor and chair, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology

“Our celebrated program, now totaling 120 alumni, crosses numerous biological fields, including population biology; behavior and ecology; biodiversity and evolutionary ecology; agroecology; genetics and molecular biology; biochemistry and physiology; entomology; and cell biology,” Chiu wrote. “We provide academically strong and highly motivated undergraduates with a multi-year research experience that cultivates skills that will prepare them for a career in biological research. Many RSPIB alumni are now enrolled or graduated from premiere programs including Cornell, UC San Francisco, and Stanford.”

Yang, who holds a bachelor's degree in ecology and evolution (1999) from Cornell University, and a doctorate in population biology (2006) from UC Davis, joined the UC Davis faculty in 2009. As an assistant professor, he received a 2013-2018 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Award and was selected a Hellman Fellow in 2012. He won a Chancellor’s Teaching Fellow Award and the Atwood Colloquium Rising Star Award in Ecology, University of Toronto, both in 2015. Currently he chairs the Entomology Graduate Program and also serves as interim vice chair while community ecologist and associate professor Rachel Vannette  is on sabbatical.

Since 2009, Yang has taught more than 600 undergraduates and more than 90 graduate students in his formal classes. His courses include Insect Ecology, Community Ecology, Experimental Ecology and Evolution in the Field, He has taught two National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) grant writing workshops, and the Population Biology Graduate Group core course for three years.

'Calm, Caring and Compassionate'

Professor Louie Yang smiling
Professor Louie Yang engaging in conversation during Bohart Museum of Entomology's open house on monarchs. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

He has welcomed and mentored graduate students from around the country, including the UC Davis-Howard University Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the Ecology and Evolution Graduate Admissions Pathways program.Besides overseeing the entire Entomology Graduate Program as chair, Louie also personally serves as graduate advisor for a third of our graduate students (assigned alphabetically),” noted Chiu, who received the Academic Senate's Distinguished Teaching Award (Graduate Students/Professional) in 2022. “Louie is that calm, caring, and compassionate figure who listens, engages, and helps them resolve issues. He has helped many graduate students navigate challenges often encountered in graduate school."

Yang’s  teaching (undergraduates and graduates) extends to high school students and area residents. He launched the Monitoring Milkweed-Monarch Interactions for Learning and Conservation (MMMILC) project in 2013 for students in the environmental science program at Davis Senior High School or those associated with the Center for Land-Based Learning's Green Corps program. He taught more than 150 high school-aged participants. Their tasks: monitoring milkweed-monarch interactions in a project funded by the National Science Foundation. He organized and led a 135-member team, and supported them all as co-authors of the paper, “Different Factors Limit Early- and Late-Season Windows of Opportunity for Monarch Development,” published in July 2022 in the journal Ecology and Evolution. The 107 co-authors included high school students, undergraduate and graduate students, and community members. 

Male monarch butterfly with wings spread
Male monarch butterfly with wings spread. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

In his research, Yang is involved in monarch conservation science and planning, in collaboration with the Western Monarch Conservation Science Group, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation, Monarch Joint Venture, Environment Defense Fund, and the National Monarch Summit in D.C. Science Friday, National Public Radio, interviewed him in February 2022 about his monarch-milkweed research. (Listen to the archived interview.) He was one of 12 invited scientists nationwide who delivered a presentation during the two-day Monarch Butterfly Summit, held in June 2022 at the Capitol, Washington D.C. He has presented invited seminars at Purdue University and the University of Nevada.

High Level of Student Participation

UC Davis distinguished professor Jay Rosenheim
UC Davis distinguished professor Jay Rosenheim

Professor Rosenheim, recipient of the 2011 Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award, Undergraduate Level,  has observed Yang’s innovative teaching. “His class sessions were impeccably organized, his presentations deeply insightful, and the discussions highly engaging," he wrote. "Louie alternated lectures with class sessions in which large blocks of time were devoted to structured debates. For the debates, Louie drew names at random and assembled two 3-person teams of students, one arguing the 'pro' side of the issue, the other arguing the 'con' side. After an initial period when positions were presented and rebuttals given, the whole class was invited to join in the discussion. What was truly remarkable was the high level of participation that Louie is able to elicit, both during the debates and during his lectures. Louie inspires the confidence of his students, and they reciprocate with their willingness to take risks during class by contributing, even when discussing topics that are new to them. This is not an easy thing to accomplish; Louie's ability to gain such strong student participation is perhaps the strongest evidence of Louie's talent in connecting with students. I was so impressed with the success of Louie's methods that I decided to incorporate structured debates into one of my own classes as well."

The nomination packet related that what sets Louie apart are these three qualities. (1) He respects the unique needs and interests of each student. He knows that the diversity of ideas and perspectives fuels scientific progress. He values each student’s unique perspective and interests. He gives his students opportunities to view themselves as intellectual colleagues and contributors. (2) He facilitates intellectual independence in his drive to help students transition from being consumers of knowledge to becoming producers of knowledge. (3) He learns from his students. He knows that teaching and mentoring is a two-way street.

Diversity of Human Perspectives

On his lab website, Yang says: “Science progresses by confronting our assumptions, ideas, and hypotheses with data. This dynamic process of confrontation requires a powerful combination of logic and objectivity that is widely recognized as the domain of science. However, the raw material of scientific creativity—the fundamental wellspring for the scientific process—depends on variability in the way people think about how the world works. This diversity of human perspectives allows the scientific community to ask new questions, imagine new solutions to problems, and reconsider entrenched assumptions—all of which accelerate scientific progress. New ideas are the engine of science and that is why I encourage diversity in science.”

Yang advocates “an open, supportive and encouraging environment to do good science,” as posted on his website. “We are open to multiple research areas and approaches and encourage students and postdocs to develop their own innovative ideas and creative questions along the way. Our lab values straightforward communication, intellectual independence, determined problem-solving, constructive persistence, helpfulness, integrity, humility and humor. Although we aim to maintain a small lab group, we always welcome inquiries from prospective graduate students, postdocs and undergraduates.”

Singled Out for Awards

Unbeknownst to him, his colleagues and students have singled him out for special awards. He has received regional, national, and international awards for his teaching and mentoring. They include 2023 Graduate Program Advising and Mentoring Award. 2023 Distinction in Student Mentoring Award from PBESA; the 2017 Eleanor and Harry Walker Academic Advising Award from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; the 2018 Outstanding Faculty Academic Advisor from the Pacific Region 9 of NACADA, also known as the Global Community for Academic Advising; and NACADA's international award for the Outstanding Faculty Academic Advising.

Yang lab doctoral alumna Meredith Cenzer, now an instructor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, remembers: “I will never forget the presentation he gave to my incoming cohort, just nine months after he himself started as a professor. He told us about imposter syndrome (the feeling of not deserving our success) and assured us right off the bat that we all deserved to be at UC Davis; that none of us had snuck in, and that we were chosen because they all believed in our ability to be successful in graduate school. I will never forget how much that meant to me as a young woman fresh out of my bachelor's with little experience in independent research. In the seven years I was in his lab, even when experiments failed or I made mistakes or felt like I was falling behind, Louie never stopped believing in my abilities. Building that trust was foundational in our professional relationship, and indispensable to my development in graduate school and afterwards.”

Yang lab alumna Naomi Murray, MS, Imperial Lake College, London, noted that  “A full four years have passed since I was enrolled in Insect Ecology. Louie is still available to meet virtually, still willing to submit letters of recommendation for me, and still suggesting books and podcasts that he thinks I might enjoy. He has absolutely no obligation to be engaged, present, or kind with me, but he always is. It is a demonstration of his care and interest in his students and their growth. He makes them feel like they matter. The impact of these efforts is immense, especially considering how many students he interacts with through teaching and RSPIB.”

Yang lab alumna Hillary Rollins lauded her professor for seeking to share his enthusiasm with his students, giving them tools and experiences that will serve them in real situations, and challenging them to think at a higher level.

“Since being Dr. Yang’s student, I have earned my own doctorate, worked as a postdoctoral researcher, and served as instructor of record for an upper division ecology course. I now serve as the field station manager for the University of Wyoming-National Park Service Field Station located in Grand Teton National Park. Dr. Yang continues to inspire my own research, teaching, and approach to mentorship. He has always been willing to give advice, and to support me and my goal of pursuing science as a career. His talks at conferences are legendary and pack rooms but afterwards, he always greets people with a cheerful grin and enthusiasm to discuss even the most basic of projects. My own dissertation was largely inspired by a talk he gave. When I taught my own course, I included a debate and an oral exam after his example. He is the kind of scientist and the kind of teacher that I am still working to become.”

In unsolicited comments in Rate My Professors, his students wrote:

  • “One of the best instructors at UC Davis. Class on insects was very interesting…He is super cool, and lectures are never boring.”
  • “Louie honestly might be my favorite professor on campus. He is cool and smart and engaged with his students…”
  • “Really one of the most intelligent people I've met in college. It's apparent just talking to him, which I’d highly recommend.”
  • “I loved this seminar, Ecology Outdoors! I learned so much from Louie, and he's really good at encouraging creativity and experimentation. He's a very hard worker and plans the class well.”
  • “Really cool guy, made the class interesting. gave a lot of real-life example, so students can relate the subject to real world.”

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