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DCSTEM recognizes Kattoum, Ruhl-Whittle, Agarwal as Faculty Excellence Winners

The 2021 Faculty Excellence Award winners from the Donaghey College of STEM.
The 2021 Faculty Excellence Award winners from the Donaghey College of STEM. Photos by Ben Krain.

The UA Little Rock Donaghey College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has selected its 2021 Faculty Excellence winners.

“The committee would like to extend our deepest congratulations to the three DCSTEM Faculty Excellence Winners,” said Dr. Rene Shroat-Lewis, chair of the awards selection committee. “We were humbled reading each nominee packet that clearly showed their dedication and persistence in their respective category. This is certainly a reflection of not only hard work, but UA Little Rock’s strong commitment to providing an environment conducive to excellence in research, teaching, and service.”

Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching – Ronia Kattoum, instructor of chemistry

Faculty Excellence nominee Ronia Kattoum. Photo by Ben Krain.
Faculty Excellence nominee Ronia Kattoum. Photo by Ben Krain.

Kattoum is known as one of the most popular and effective teachers in the Department of Chemistry. She serves as the Freshman Programs coordinator, where she trains graduate teaching assistants, and the Education Minor coordinator, where she works with chemistry majors who are education minors on the path to teach grades 7-12.

“Ms. Kattoum is one of the best-recognized instructors in the UA Little Rock Chemistry Department,” said Dr. Anindya Ghosh, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “Her outstanding teaching capabilities and contributions in the areas of fundamental, general, and organic chemistries have benefitted and shaped the future of our students tremendously.”

Her efforts to introduce modern teaching tools in her classes include the use of clicker technology to promote active learning, an online homework platform to enhance student learning outside the classroom, and the creation of a series of tutoring videos to help nontraditional students who can’t normally make it to office hours and tutoring sessions.

Kattoum said that one thing that has inspired her to be a good teacher is a card she received from one of her students that read: “The kindest of hearts expect no reward, but deserve it all the more.” 

“This statement continues to resonate with me. When I set my heart on teaching, it was for the sheer award of knowing that I can touch people’s lives and inspire them to be the best versions of themselves,” Kattoum said. “I love chemistry and just simply want to spread the joy of discovery to others. However, this award still means the world to me. Although we may never be able to measure the impact that we have on this world and we may never know what some of our students have accomplished because of our influence and effort, this award will always serve as a reminder to keep pushing forward, even on the most difficult days. To remember that one act of kindness or one word of encouragement could change the trajectory of one student’s life who could impact thousands of more lives for the better.”

Faculty Excellence Award in Public Service – Dr. Laura Ruhl-Whittle, associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences

Faculty Excellence nominee Laura Ruhl
Faculty Excellence nominee Laura Ruhl. Photo by Ben Krain.

Ruhl-Whittle’s notable public service includes protecting Fourche Creek Watershed, which surrounds UA Little Rock and most of the city of Little Rock.

“While Dr. Ruhl serves by mentoring student researchers, leading field trips, and supporting and participating in volunteer clean-up efforts within the watershed, her major contribution to public service is aiding in the development of a watershed management plan,” said Dr. Beth McMillan, chair of the Department of Earth Sciences.

The watershed plan will serve as a guide for resource managers, policy makers, and community organizations to restore and protect the quality of lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. Ruhl-Whittle is using her research and expertise on the water quality to gather and supply data from Fourche Creek for the Water Management Plan. 

“I think service is a vital part of my role as a faculty member,” Ruhl-Whittle said. “I have performed service in my discipline, to the university, college, and departments, as well as applied my expertise to a community problem. It has been rewarding in every aspect from the human interactions to helping my community. I will continue my work to improve the Fourche Creek Watershed, which is a priceless resource to the community, University, and the State of Arkansas.”

Faculty Excellence Award in Research – Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Maulden-Entergy Professor of Information Science

Faculty Excellence nominee Nitin Agarwal. Photo by Ben Krain.
Faculty Excellence nominee Nitin Agarwal. Photo by Ben Krain.

Agarwal is an internationally renowned researcher whose pioneering work in the social computing discipline has significantly advanced this fledgling area and helped open many doors for innovation for the scientific community. His primary research interests are in social computing, (deviant) behavior modeling, studying group dynamics, influence, trust, collective action, social-cyber forensics, health informatics, data mining and privacy aims to be at the vanguard of the ever-evolving online behaviors.

“STEM education needs to be research-driven so that we can expose our students to cutting-edge technologies to prepare them as the next generation workforce that is capable of developing innovative solutions to real-world problems,” Agarwal said. “Our students are the lifeblood of research projects at COSMOS. Our mission is to conduct competitive research, transition research from publications to practice, and inspire thought leaders that communicate science to society and contribute to the social good.”

At UA Little Rock, he created the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS), which was designated as a research center by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education in 2020.

COSMOS has produced more than two dozen projects, published 10 books and more than 200 publications, and three important tools: Blogtrackers, YouTubeTracker and Focal Structure Analysis. In the past year, COSMOS has assisted the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office track scams and disinformation related to COVID-19 that led to the development of COVID-19 Misinformation Tracker.

“Our research examines some of the very complex and interdisciplinary problems that challenge science and society alike,” Agarwal said. “For a meaningful impact, we partner with educators, researchers, businesses, practitioners, journalists, policymakers, defense and security agencies across our state, nation, and the world.”

Since joining UA Little Rock in 2009, Agarwal has brought in more than $1o million in funding for UA Little Rock from sponsors like the U.S. Army Research Office, U.S. Office of Naval Research, U.S. Air Force Research Lab, U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, U.S. National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“Dr. Agarwal has identified key issues and approaches in understanding the interplay between what people write in blogs and what they do in real life that are critical to grasping the fundamentals of conflict in the new information environment,” said Dr. Rebecca Goolsby, program officer at the Office of Naval Research. “His work has clear implications for understanding crowd behaviors and the emergence of ‘crowdwar’ – phenomena that are now emerging in Ukraine and elsewhere.”

The DCSTEM awards committee included Shroat-Lewis, Haydar Al-Shukri, Ivan Conde, Lakeshia Legette-Jones, Mamdouh Bakr, Scott Hearnsberger, Shanzhi Wang, Soheil Saedi, Xiaowei Xu, and David Manry.

Kattoum, Ruhl-Whittle, and Agarwal will compete for the university-wide Faculty Excellence Awards, which will be announced April 15.