The University of Wisconsin’s 2021 Hilldale Awards, which recognize four faculty members for their success and accomplishments in teaching, research and service, went to Susan Ellis Weismer, Michael Fiore, Sabine Gross and Robert Mathieu, according to a UW press release

Each year one faculty member from arts and humanities, biological sciences, physical sciences and social sciences receives a Hilldale Award, which carries a prize of $7,500 dollars, according to the press release.

“It’s thrilling, and I feel honored and humbled. The great thing about the Hilldale is this university encourages and inspires us to do all — research, teaching, service and outreach,” Gross said. “The Hilldale values all of that.”

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The winners were officially presented with their awards by Chancellor Rebecca Blank in a virtual ceremony held April 14, according to an article published by the UW Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention.

Tobacco prevention

Fiore joined the faculty in 1988 from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as he was recruited to start a program for research and intervention of tobacco use. CTRI associate director Tim Baker has been working with Fiore since around 1990, and together they built the center into what it is today.

“It reflects the work not just of myself, but of the whole team of people who work on tobacco control at this university,” Fiore said. “I want to give an incredibly central shoutout to the fact that this is an award for the whole center, not just for me personally.” 

The CTRI mostly focuses on research, which is funded by the National Health Institute, but the center also helps people quit smoking through well-established treatments, Fiore said. Seven out of 10 smokers visit a primary care doctor every year, and the CTRI focuses on embedding intervention methods to help these smokers quit while receiving medical attention.

Diseases caused by smoking tobacco will kill half of smokers if they do not quit, Fiore said, so the CTRI will possibly save one of every two people they help quit smoking. About half a million people are killed by their tobacco addiction in the U.S. every year.

“It’s really unequaled in terms of its impact on our society. There’s no other disease that even comes close to killing half a million,” Fiore said.

One useful quitting treatment is called the Wisconsin Tobacco Quit line at 1-800-QUITNOW, which is a 24-hour live counselling hotline, Fiore said. Additionally, smokefree.gov is a similar web-based service.

Speech and cognitive development

Another winner, Ellis Weismer, focuses on language in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at UW. She said her current project is a five-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health on language learning in toddlers on the autism spectrum.

She is working with her co-principal investigator, psychology professor Jenny Saffran, to examine if these toddlers struggle with prediction and anticipation through language, which is a newer cognitive theory regarding autism. 

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“Human communication is very important. It’s extremely important for cognitive development, for academic achievement and for social skills,” Ellis Weismer said. “Communication is a very basic human ability that separates us from some other types of creatures.”

Ellis Weismer has been on the faculty staff for 37 years. Having spent 11 years as the associate dean in the College of Letters and Sciences and doing other service projects for the university, she tries to bring balance to her work in teaching, research and service.

The Hilldale award is different from the others because it encompasses the three aspects of teaching, research and service in the work of faculty, Weismer said.

“It was very much an honor to get this because there are so many really outstanding colleagues at UW-Madison,” Ellis Weismer said.

Astronomy 

In his 35 years as a part of the faculty, Mathieu has worked at the forefront of astronomy and has run the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning for the past 20 years. Additionally, Mathieu worked with students, lead the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, helped build an observatory and worked on many more projects, he said.

CIRTL is an organization dedicated to training current graduate students to become excellent researchers and teachers, Mathieu said. This organization started out with just three participating universities and has expanded to include nearly 40 universities today.

“We’re all working together to accomplish this goal of creating national faculties who are deeply committed to the learning of their students,” Mathieu said. 

Astronomy has focused a lot on understanding the evolution of single stars since the 1950s, Mathieu said, but about half of star formations occur with another star nearby. Mathieu’s work has focused on binary star systems, and he’s discovered that sometimes these stars transfer mass to each other, merge or collide.

Mathieu said the best part of working at UW is working with students, as it’s a “blessing” to work with young people, both undergraduates and graduates. 

“We’re really seeing students from all sorts of different backgrounds and all sorts of different dreams,” Mathieu said. “Being able to be a place that really allows them to thrive and hopefully achieve those dreams, there’s nothing better in life than that.”

German

Gross joined the faculty in the summer of 1992, drawn in by the intellectual community at UW. Ever since, she has worked in many different German areas of study, such as language, literature, culture and theatre, and she has directed the College of Letters and Sciences Honors program for the past seven years.

Gross is very interested in directing theatre with students, she said, and has staged a German play every two years for 25 years. Teaching language through theatre gets students out of the classroom and away from literature reading, Gross said.

“It’s great to be working with your whole body, and think of the whole human being. We weren’t intended by nature to just sit and be quiet and only use our brains,” Gross said

German has a rich tradition in science, art, literature, philosophy and many cultural aspects, Gross said, but that is true for all foreign languages. She chose to focus on German due to her German heritage and her love of German literature.

Gross published a book in 2018, organized a convention on the topic of rhythm in 2019 and plans to organize another conference in 2022. She said she is interested in studying many different genres, particularly the mystery genre, which is the focus of her current project. She also wants to study comedy and writings about animals. 

“Reading anything and being able to converse in any foreign language is like adding a second floor to your brain,” Gross said. “It opens up things because it makes you think differently about your native language, and it gives you added communicative skills and cross-cultural skills.”

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Gross’s work has not been limited to only the German language, she said, as she has conducted theatre workshops for people teaching 15 different languages and has studied human cognition and human time consciousness. 

All the Hilldale recipients felt lucky to be recognized at UW with a faculty of many experienced and similarly qualified individuals, Mathieu said.

“Madison is a place that gives so many opportunities for growth, not just for students but also for the staff and the faculty, and it has a culture that opens so many opportunities for boundary-crossing,” Mathieu said.