Kent State Distinguished Teaching Award Recipient Encourages Undergraduate Research

For many professors, research was an integral part of their graduate study. Distinguished Teaching Award honoree Mark Kershner, Ph.D., believes it is important for students to begin conducting research during their undergraduate careers.

“Undergraduate research, particularly educating students as to the whole research process, is really important to me,” Kershner says. “Research is how I got into what I’m doing now.”

The associate professor of biological sciences discovered that giving undergraduate students the opportunity to get hands-on experience helps them determine if the field is right for them.

Each year, the Kent State University Alumni Association recognizes Kent State’s outstanding faculty members by awarding three nominated educators with the Distinguished Teaching Award. The Distinguished Teaching Award is the most prestigious award Kent State presents to full-time, tenure-track faculty members.

Mentoring Graduate Students

Jacob Boyd, graduate appointee in Kent State’s Department of Biological Sciences, nominated Kershner for the 2015 Distinguished Teaching Award.

“Outside of the classroom, Dr. Kershner is my faculty advisor, and I would also consider him my mentor,” Boyd says.

Starting during his sophomore year, Boyd gained early experience working in the lab.

“One thing that I really have enjoyed about working in this lab is that, as I gain more experience, Dr. Kershner has given me more freedom,” he says. “He was still always there for me when I needed advice, but he gave me the opportunity to get hands-on experience on my own.”

“Jacob took an interest in the kinds of things I was doing, and he sought me out,” Kershner says. “He came in during my office hours looking for opportunities in the lab. Along the way, my goal was to teach him how to conduct research, from start to finish. Starting with ‘what’s your question; what’s your hypothesis?’”

Kershner fosters many relationships in the lab. Initially, Kershner pairs interested undergraduate students with graduate students.

“I have fantastic graduate students,” Kershner says. “They’re also really engaged in this idea of undergraduate research because many of them did it as well.”

Supporting Undergraduate Research

If a student shows continued interest, Kershner sets up weekly meetings to go over the scientific process and determine the student’s area of interest. Together, they identify a research question and develop a hypothesis.

“We set goals for a project that can be completed over two semesters,” Kershner says. “The first semester is usually a lot of planning and teaching them how to write good, testable hypotheses. Then, we try to start the project as soon as possible.”

After determining the project, Kershner helps with the logistics of the project.

“We come up with a project that’s all theirs,” he says. “I work with them on it from start to finish, teaching them the whole research process, and as a function of it, I’ve had 12 or 13 go on to graduate school and three who are currently applying. I’m really proud of that.”

In the 2014 Spring Semester, four of Kershner’s students presented at the Undergraduate Symposium on Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity, and one student won second place.

Hands-on Experience Outdoors

Kershner is a community ecologist, which means he studies different types of organisms and how they relate to their environment.

“What it really means is I get to spend time outside, and that keeps me sane,” Kershner says. “Field experience is important in helping explain and break down some of the larger concepts I talk about in class. On these trips, students are getting wet, they’re getting muddy, and it’s a good way for students to engage in the material more actively but also determine if this is something they ultimately want to do with their lives.”

Students and faculty have found these field trips to be rewarding experiences.

“I’ve had multiple students and other faculty tell me that those field trips are some of the best days they’ve had in school because they’re fun, and they’re seeing some application of the things we’re talking about in class,” Kershner says.

Kershner’s commitment to students, both in and outside the classroom, has benefited many beyond their undergraduate careers, and he says he is grateful to be recognized.

“It means students appreciate my efforts in the classroom,” he says. “I could get up there and talk, but if I’m not reaching the students, I don’t really think I’m doing my job. The fact that students thought enough to nominate me is a big deal. It’s a recognition, also, that the effort I put in to this is recognized by the university on some level, as well.”

The Kent State University Alumni Association is seeking nominations for the Distinguished Teaching Award. If you know a professor who makes a positive impact, nominate him or her to receive this award.

Sponsored by the alumni association since 1967, the Distinguished Teaching Award is the university’s most prestigious honor for full-time, tenure-track faculty members. The award is presented annually to three professors who demonstrate extraordinary teaching in the classroom and a devotion to impacting the lives of students.

Distinguished teaching Award nominations

The Kent State Alumni Association is currently seeking nominations for the Distinguished Teaching Award. Visit  for the nomination form and detailed eligibility requirements. The deadline for nominations is June 30, 2016.