Darrow, Bhatt, Bret-Harte named 2022 Usibelli Award winners

a portrait of a woman
UAF photo by Leif Van Cise
Margaret Darrow is the 2022 recipient of the Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching Award.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has announced the winners of the 2022 Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching, Research and Service Awards.

The Distinguished Teaching Award will go to Margaret Darrow, a professor of geological engineering at the College of Engineering and Mines. The Distinguished Research Award will be presented to Uma Bhatt, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Geophysical Institute and College of Natural Science and Mathematics. Syndonia Bret-Harte, a professor of ecology at the Institute of Arctic Biology and College of Natural Science and Mathematics, will receive the Distinguished Service Award.

The Usibelli Award recipients will be honored at a reception on April 29, the day before UAF’s 2022 commencement ceremony.

Darrow earned her first bachelor’s degree, in geology, from the University of Washington in 1993. Over the next decade, she earned a second bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a teacher certification, all at UAF. She completed her doctoral degree at UAF in 2007 and joined the faculty in 2008, after working as a geotechnical engineering assistant for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and a high school teacher in rural Alaska.

Darrow teaches introductory through graduate-level classes and receives high praise from her students. They cite her stimulating field trips, personal attention, advocacy beyond the classroom and high standards, particularly for written reports.

a portrait of a woman
UAF photo by Leif Van Cise
Uma Bhatt is the 2022 recipient of the Emil Usibelli Distinguished Research Award.

“Dr. Darrow’s approach to classroom instruction involves not just stale lectures but hands-on demonstrations in class, multimedia presentations and cheesy game shows to test our understanding of geological terminology,” one student wrote in a letter supporting Darrow’s nomination for the award.

“Who else has the rapper identity ‘Docta Dirt’ and develops her own educational rap songs?” another student wrote.

Bhatt, who holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in atmospheric sciences, arrived at UAF in 1998. She also has two bachelor’s degrees: one in Russian and another in mechanical engineering.

At UAF, she has conducted wide-ranging research into climate-related phenomena of value to scientists, resource managers and industries. She published a groundbreaking study of the connection between sea ice and tundra vegetation, and she currently leads a worldwide effort to better predict the seasonal extent of sea ice. She also is working on methods to seasonally forecast wildland fire risks.

“It is her facilitation of inclusive and broad community participation that has distinguished Uma and, in the process, made UAF a hub for research on sea ice, wildfire and Arctic vegetative change,” wrote John Walsh, chief scientist at the UAF International Arctic Research Center, in a letter supporting her nomination.

Bret-Harte came to UAF in 1998 as a researcher after earning a doctorate in biology from Stanford University. Four years later, she became the associate science director at the Institute of Arctic Biology’s Toolik Field Station, located just north of the Brooks Range, and, the year after that, she joined the UAF faculty. Today, she is science co-director at Toolik.

a portrait of a woman
UAF photo by Leif Van Cise
Syndonia Bret-Harte is the 2022 recipient of the Emil Usibelli Distinguished Service Award.

In addition to being a researcher and teacher, Bret-Harte has worked to develop Toolik into a world-class facility used by scientists from across the globe. She regularly meets with policymakers, agency leaders and the public to describe the need for the station, which has drawn about $50 million in U.S. and European grant funding in the past 20 years. Bret-Harte also has served on numerous university committees, as president of the UAF Faculty Senate and as a judge in the annual statewide high school science symposium.

“These service contributions to our university, her profession and the public, together with her national and international facilitation of Arctic research, are the most outstanding of any faculty member that I have evaluated in my 20 years as director of the Institute of Arctic Biology,” wrote Brian Barnes, a UAF professor who has left the IAB director’s position but continues to serve with Bret-Harte as Toolik’s science co-director.

The Usibelli Awards are among the university’s most prestigious awards. They are funded annually from an endowment that Usibelli Coal Mine established in 1992. Each year, a committee that includes members from the UAF faculty, the student body and the UA Foundation board of directors evaluates the nominees. Each winner receives a cash award of $10,000.