Psychology Professor Earns Merrimack College’s Highest Teaching Honor

Over the past seven years, Laura Kurdziel has worked to expand Merrimack’s Department of Psychology and its curriculum.
Photo of Laura Kurdziel at Merrimack's 2023 Commencement.
Laura Kurdziel accepted the Edward G. Roddy Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award at Merrimack's 2023 Commencement.

Associate Professor Laura Kurdziel believes in the importance of performance when in the classroom.

“I take it as a personal challenge to make ions moving across a membrane sound as exciting as I possibly can,” said Kurdziel, a member of the psychology faculty. ”I kind of take it as a badge of pride if I can convert my students into liking neuroscience.”

Her commitment to instruction has earned her the respect of her peers and the love of her students. As part of Merrimack College’s 2023 Commencement, Kurdziel received the Edward G. Roddy Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award. This honor recognizes Merrimack faculty members who go above and beyond in the classroom and exemplify the traits of Roddy, a Merrimack professor of history and scholar who throughout his life demonstrated a devotion to teaching excellence, care and concern for students and a deep dedication to learning. 

“It’s quite an honor,” she said. “I’m in such an amazing department and there are so many wonderful teachers at Merrimack that it all feels kind of unreal.”

Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs John “Sean” Condon, Ph.D., said. Kurdziel exemplifies excellence in teaching at Merrimack.

“In addition to being an excellent teacher, she has done tremendous work to revise the core curriculum, grow the psychology department and bolster the research efforts at the College,” he continued. “I congratulate her on this most deserving honor.”

Despite having a natural talent for teaching, Kurdziel said she never had a life-long goal to be a college professor. Her primary interests have always been scientific research and musical theater. After graduating high school, she was accepted by both the University of Maryland, College Park and Shenandoah Conservatory Arts Academy in Virginia. Ultimately, she enrolled at Maryland to study zoology. 

It was Kurdziel’s first undergraduate class that piqued her interest in teaching. The classroom, she found, wasn’t just a place for learning – it could also serve as a theater of sorts.

“It was a huge class in an auditorium and I felt like an audience member,” she explained. “My professor was on what looked like a stage and he was so dynamic, so engaging, so entertaining — I just loved the entire hour and 15 minutes I was sitting in that class. I walked out of that class saying, ‘Well, I’m going to be a college professor.’”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Kurdziel earned a master’s in animal behavior from Bucknell University. During that time, she studied learning, memory and behavior in animals.

All the while, Kurdziel’s teaching dreams came more into focus. While pursuing her master’s degree, she realized teaching at a smaller liberal arts college would be the best for her. Considering there aren’t a lot of small colleges that have robust zoology departments, she pursued a doctorate in neuroscience and behavior from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“I came to psychology through the back door,” she explained.

Kurdziel said she got an “obsession with studying sleep” after her doctorate advisor selected her to work on a sleep study with preschool children. In June, she’ll discuss her latest research on the therapeutic benefits of napping for young adults with traumatic brain injuries at the annual Associated Professional Sleep Society conference in Indianapolis.

To this day, Kurdziel still finds time to flex her musical talents. She regularly performs with Voices of Hope Boston, a nonprofit organization that performs musical theater shows to raise money for cancer research. 

“I have a three-year-old and we (sang) ‘The Music Man’ at the North Shore Music Theater,” Kurdziel said. “To perform with her on stage was my dream come true.”

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