Gustin to be honored with George R. Brown Certificate of Highest Merit

On April 26, Michael Gustin will become the 11th faculty member to receive Rice’s George R. Brown Certificate of Highest Merit. A professor of biochemistry and cell biology, Gustin will be recognized at the annual teaching awards ceremony from 3 to 5 p.m. in Herring Hall, Room 100.

Rice professors can receive this prestigious award just once in their career. When the George R. Brown Awards were established in 1967, they were designed to honor outstanding performance in the classroom, and the rules limited how many times a faculty member could receive this honor.

A member of Rice’s faculty since 1988, Gustin has won six George R. Brown teaching awards, which are based on votes of alumni two, three and five years after receiving their undergraduate degrees. Faculty members who win three George R. Brown Awards for Excellence or the equivalent in total monetary value of a combination of George R. Brown Awards for Excellence and George R. Brown Awards for Superior Teaching become honorary lifetime recipients and are retired from the competition.

Gustin said that he is “deeply, deeply honored” by the award.

“Especially significant to me is to be considered together with the 10 previous winners,” he said. “I admire and have learned much from these superb professors and the many other outstanding teachers we have at Rice.”

For Gustin, teaching is about balancing his passion for the course material with putting himself in the mindset of an earnest student taking the course. He said the motivation and intellect of Rice’s students make it a pleasure to teach here.

“Teaching and research are each a bountiful opportunity for generating and testing ideas,” he said. “I love my job.”

Gustin said that his Rice career has been full of striking classroom moments that have shaped the way he thinks about teaching.

“For example, a student approached me right after class one day and described to me how I was wrong in one detail about how an enzyme is regulated in cells,” he said. “After thinking a bit, I acknowledged he was correct and I had made a mistake. And then the student said he knew this information because he himself lacked this enzyme regulator because of a genetic disease.”

In another instance, a student wrote in a course evaluation that it felt like Gustin was asking a question and expecting students to guess the answer in his head.

“From these and other related moments, I have tried to better connect learning in my course to prior student experiences or knowledge and think more carefully about what questions to ask students,” Gustin said.

He also said that co-teaching a course with Deborah Harter, an associate professor of classical and European studies, helped him enormously with framing more open questions that invite discussion.

When it comes to guidance for other teachers, he offered this small piece of advice:

“Any course-connected assessment (quizzes, papers, tests, problem sets, final exams, etc.) can be viewed as an important learning opportunity for students.”

He encourages fellow Rice professors and instructors to take advantage of the services provided by the Center for Teaching Excellence – “a valuable resource,” he said.

Gustin said the courses he remembers best from his time as a student are those in which the instructor showed passion for the subject. In his own teaching, he hopes he conveys a genuine enthusiasm for the course material.

“The emotional component of learning can be especially significant in steering one’s education or even vocational choice,” he said.

Outside of the classroom, Gustin’s research centers on questions concerning how host-resident microbes respond to stress and generate dynamic communities. His research group recently discovered a mechanism by which some of the bacteria normally present in humans help fight off fungal infections.

For a full list of this year’s teaching award winners, visit

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.