Kumar Sinniah walks in the faculty processional at Calvin University's 2021 Commencement ceremony held at LMCU Ballpark.
Professor of Chemistry Kumar Sinniah is the 2021 recipient of the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching. As the highest teaching honor at Calvin University, the award was established in 1993 by a donor to honor a former Calvin trustee, George Tinholt.
Sinniah joined Calvin’s chemistry faculty in 1995—and his courses and research projects have been raved about by students ever since. While Sinniah has taken time away from campus to serve as a visiting professor at institutions such as the University of Michigan, University of Maryland, and University of Cambridge, his heart has always brought him back to his students at Calvin.
Rising to new challenges
In the spring of 2020, as Calvin students faced the early days of COVID restrictions in Michigan, they relied on faculty to deliver high caliber teaching even in a time of distance and uncertainty. It was clear that professors like Kumar Sinniah would not let anything stop their excellence in teaching.
“Professor Sinniah went above and beyond during the online phase of this course,” wrote one student in their course evaluation. “He purchased an iPad and shared its screen with us as he worked through handouts and instructions during class. Seeing him write it out on the iPad as if he was writing on a class whiteboard really brought the Calvin experience into my home.
“His true understanding of the situation his students were in, and his dedication to helping us achieve our goals for the class really shown through even during the online phase.”
Student Timothy Kim echoes the sentiment. “As a professor, he was very informative with his teaching, and I personally enjoyed his style of teaching very much. Although the content was difficult, he kept students engaged with his humor, but always managed to stay on task....
“However, more impressive for me was his respectability as a human and role model. He was forgiving and especially kind during a difficult period of teaching. He stayed on top of his teaching, but always seemed to try to see from our perspectives when looking at our learning, which I have learned to be a pillar of wisdom and insight.”
Throughout the pandemic, Sinniah made sure students understood difficult concepts, but he also made sure they were understood as people during difficult circumstances.
Setting students on a path to success
It is this personal investment in the lives of his students, alumni say, that sets Sinniah apart as a foundational person in their undergraduate studies and post-graduate careers.
Nicole Michmerhuizen ’14, a postdoctoral researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, credits Sinniah with providing her hands-on research experience and forecasting its importance to her post-graduate endeavors.
“Professor Sinniah recognized the importance of a strong undergraduate research experience to my future career as a graduate student and scientific researcher,” Michmerhuizen explains. “It was only because of my relationship with him and my work in his group that I was able to attend the Annual Biophysical Society meeting in both 2013 and 2014. These meetings exposed me to the wider realm of biological science and I now know how rare these experiences are for undergraduates.”
Michmerhuizen notes that the conferences were also opportunities to meet with other Christians in biophysicists, and that Sinniah served as a role model for cultivating a professional Christian community.
Another alumna, a current medical school student, says they would not have been accepted into medical school without Sinniah’s help in the journey.
“Throughout my time at Calvin I knew that I could go to him for advice on which courses to take at Calvin to maximize my chances and potential success in medical school,” the alumna said. “And my experience was not unique; many other students that I knew who also applied for medical school or even some grad school programs also relied on him for feedback and guidance. He has a genuine passion for mentoring and guiding Calvin students.”
Sinniah’s department co-chairs, professors Carolyn Anderson and Doug Vander Griend, describe him as the “total package” when it comes to being a faculty member at Calvin University. Sinniah received the university’s Student-Faculty Research Award in 2012 and Advising and Mentoring Award 2016, and has published 30 peer-reviewed papers since starting at Calvin, often co-authored with students. His work has brought a number of National Science Foundation grants for Calvin, funding his research projects and scientific instruments for the university.
Anderson and Vander Griend also note Sinniah’s wide-ranging contributions to the university at large including his annual medical interim course in Nepal, multiple stints on the Professional Status Committee, and involvement in the university’s academic program review and prioritization processes.
Outside of Calvin, Sinniah serves regularly as a reviewer for proposals submitted to the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the National Science Foundation, and the Fulbright Scholar Program. Sinniah is also an elder at his church, Plymouth Heights CRC.
“In each of these ways,” the co-chairs note in an endorsement letter, “Professor Sinniah is able to share his wisdom and care for the wellbeing of others.”
Sinniah will be honored for his award at the outdoor spring faculty luncheon. Well wishes, including those from alumni, may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following awards were given by the provost’s office for the 2020–2021 academic year.
Advising and Mentoring Award
Todd Cioffi (congregational and ministry studies) and Emily Helder (psychology)
From Every Nation Award for Excellence in Teaching
Garth Pauley (communication)
Innovative Teaching Award
Kate van Liere (history)
Student-Faculty Research Award
Eric Arnoys (biochemistry)
Community-Based Teaching Award
Rachael Baker (biochemistry) and Amy Wilstermann (biology)
Teaching Excellence Award for Affiliated and Adjunct Faculty
Nate Glasper (music)
Collaborative Change Award
Cheryl Brandsen (provost)
Exemplary Service Award
Kristen Alford (social work, public health) and Erica Boldenow (biology, public health)