News / Center News / June 7, 2023

Five Urbana-Champaign Faculty Members Honored as University Scholars

Five University of Illinois professors at the Urbana-Champaign campus have been named University Scholars in recognition of their excellence in teaching, scholarship and service. 

Five University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professors have been named University Scholars. Top, from left to right: Merle Bowen, African American studies; Cecilia Leal, materials science and engineering; and Ying Diao, chemical and biomolecular engineering. Bottom row, left to right: Brian Ogolsky, human development and family studies; and Kaiyu Guan, natural resources and environmental studies.
Bowen photo by Della Perrone; Leal, Diao and Ogolsky by L. Brian Stauffer; and Kaiyu Guan by Chris Brown Photography, courtesy of NCSA.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Five University of Illinois professors at the Urbana-Champaign campus have been named University Scholars in recognition of their excellence in teaching, scholarship and service. 

The scholars program recognizes faculty excellence and provides $15,000 to each scholar for each of three years to enhance their academic career. The money may be used for travel, equipment, research assistants, books or other purposes.

“Faculty excellence is truly the University of Illinois System’s foundation, and unquestionably the basis for the exceptional academic experience of the nearly 95,000 students who enrolled in our three universities last fall,” said Nicholas Jones, the system’s executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs. 

“The University Scholars program spotlights outstanding individuals and provides resources for them to expand their academic horizons. They so richly deserve the accolades that come with this recognition, and their accomplishments also represent the standards to which we aspire as we actively recruit educators and researchers of the highest caliber.”

The five Urbana campus recipients, as described by their nominators:

Merle Bowen
Photo by Della Perrone

Merle Bowen, a professor of African American studies, specializes in Africa and African diaspora. Her recently published book, “For Land and Liberty: Black Struggles in Rural Brazil,” received the P. Sterling Stuckey Book Prize from the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora. 

Her current research continues her concern with Black rural communities’ struggles for land and against environmental injustice. In her pedagogy, she balances detailed lectures with in-class and supplemental activities designed to stimulate student engagement, from group analyses and short presentations to structured in-class debates. 

She has mentored students from the Abdias do Nascimento Scholars Program of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and she serves as academic director of the Civic Leadership Institute for President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. 

Ying Diao
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Ying Diao, a professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, has established a vibrant and imaginative research program at the interface of materials chemistry, molecular electronics and biomedical sciences. Her highly creative research draws inspiration from many disciplines to significantly advance molecular electronics technology, which promises to have a transformative impact on electronics, clean energy and healthcare. 

Diao works in the area of molecular assembly and additive manufacturing. She has published 68 articles as an independent investigator. Diao is an outstanding educator, winning the School of Chemical Sciences Teaching Award in 2017. She has also mentored 33 undergraduate students, about half of whom are female. She is the chair of the department’s graduate recruiting subcommittee and works to increase diversity through proactive recruiting efforts and forming connections with HBCUs. 

Kaiyu Guan
Photo by Chris Brown Photography, courtesy of NCSA

Kaiyu Guan, a professor of natural resources and environmental studies, has advanced sensing and modeling technologies for monitoring and assessing agricultural productivity and ecosystem services. 

Guan initiated and founded the Agroecosystem Sustainability Center to bring together multidisciplinary teams to address key challenges in measuring, modeling and quantifying the sustainability of agriculture.

His academic achievements have fostered more than 140 journal articles. Guan is committed to training undergraduate students, especially underrepresented students. 

His recent work on agricultural carbon emission has gained national attention, and he has provided scientific advice related to agricultural carbon emission reduction to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture. 

Cecilia Leal
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Cecilia Leal, a professor of materials science and engineering, is a pioneer in the area of biomaterials self-assembly and lipid nanoparticles. She has established a highly visible research program in determining structures and interactions of soft materials that impart biological and therapeutic function. 

Leal is the creator and lead organizer of the highly successful Girls Learning about Materials Summer Camp for middle school girls. This camp was initially supported by her NSF CAREER award and remains completely free to participants. She developed and offered three materials science-focused workshops for incarcerated students at the Danville Correctional Center as part of the Education Justice Project at Illinois. 

She has been named twice to the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their students. Through her efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, she has made significant, culture-shifting changes to the materials science and engineering department  and the Grainger College of Engineering.

Brian Ogolsky
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Brian Ogolsky, a professor of human development and family studies, is an internationally recognized leading scholar in the field of relationship science, an award-winning teacher and director of graduate programs, and a generous contributor to faculty governance. 

Ogolsky has made major theoretical and empirical contributions to the field of relationship science, with a specific emphasis on romantic partners’ relationship functioning. His publication record includes two internationally awarded books (with a third in press), nine chapters in edited volumes and 47 peer-reviewed journal articles. 

He has been named to the List of Teachers Rated as Excellent by their Students every semester he has taught. Ogolsky excels as a mentor for students, and he has received the Faculty Mentor Award and the Provost Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring. 

He has served on the board of directors for the National Council on Family Relations and the International Association for Relationship Research. He has served on grant reviews for the National Science Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.  

About the Agroecosystem Sustainability Center (ASC): The Agroecosystem Sustainability Center was founded in 2021 to lead global efforts in harmonizing sustainable food production with thriving ecosystems. The Center strives to revolutionize agricultural systems through research, collaboration, and engagement, bridging science and practice for agricultural productivity and ecosystem sustainability. Centered in the heart of Midwest on the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign under the umbrella of both the College of Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and the Institute of Sustainability, Energy, and the Environment (iSEE), ASC is positioned at the critical intersection of academia, industry, policy, and on-the-ground practice. ASC is creating a diverse and dynamic hub for driving change and is committed to transforming its research into practical and scalable solutions, fortifying our ecosystems, bolstering farm profitability, and empowering agricultural systems to proactively mitigate and adapt to the realities of climate change.

Media Contact: Mike Koon, ASC Communication Lead (