Richard Zare named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor

Richard N. Zare, chair of the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University, has been named a 2006 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor. Zare is one of 20 researchers from 18 universities chosen for their strong interest in improving undergraduate science education. Each recipient will receive $1 million from the Maryland-based biomedical research institute "to put their innovative ideas into action," according to an April 5 media announcement from the institute.

"The scientists whom we have selected are true pioneers--not only in their research but in their creative approaches and dedication to teaching," said Thomas R. Cech, president of the institute. "We are hopeful that their educational experiments will energize undergraduate science education throughout the nation."

In 2005, institute officials invited 100 research universities to nominate two faculty members to compete for the professorships. Of 150 applications received, 20 finalists were chosen based on the potential impact of their proposals on undergraduate science education and on the quality of their research and educational accomplishments.

"Teaching often takes a back seat to research at leading American universities," the announcement said. "Determined to change that fact, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute combed the country for leading research scientists who, through their teaching and mentoring, are striving to ignite the scientific spark in a new generation of students."

Laser technology

Zare, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford, has pioneered the use of laser technology to analyze chemical reactions at the molecular level. His development of laser-induced fluorescence as a technique for studying reaction dynamics has been widely adopted in other laboratories. He plans to use his institute professorship to design a new undergraduate course that applies the principles of physics, chemistry and biology to the study of light and photosynthesis.

"The topic of light, how it interacts with molecules and how organisms use light to produce their nutrients through photosynthesis, seems well suited for capturing the interests of students and for illustrating how research problems require knowledge of many different fields," Zare said. "As the course progresses, the opportunity will be presented for students to explore their own curiosity about the behavior of organisms involved in the photosynthetic pathway, addressing such questions as the effect of genetic mutations on pigment distributions."

As many as 20 students are expected to enroll in the course, which may become part of a new undergraduate biochemistry track in the Department of Chemistry, Zare said.

"This course will stress an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems that should hopefully prepare future researchers who can contribute to the field at the highest level," he added. "It is my deep conviction that exciting problems transcend the boundaries of departments. By introducing students as early as possible to the research process, it is hoped that more students will choose to follow studies leading to a Ph.D., M.D. or M.D./Ph.D. degree involving research in the life sciences."

Award-winning teacher

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Zare joined the Stanford chemistry faculty in 1977. Among his numerous professional honors are the 1983 National Medal of Science, the 1999 Welch Award in Chemistry and the 2005 Wolf Prize in Chemistry. He also is the recipient of several teaching awards, including the Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching at Stanford.

"My experience has been that success in lecture courses, no matter how brilliant or clever the tests, do not lead students to choose career paths," Zare said. "Instead, an experience in which a student can do something with her or his hands--and understand that 'something'--often is the key to choosing a research career in the sciences. This course hopefully will offer this special experience."

Zare is the second member of the Stanford faculty to be awarded a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professorship. Tim Stearns, an associate professor of biological sciences and of genetics, was chosen in 2002, the first year the professorships were announced.

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COMMENT:
Richard Zare, Department of Chemistry: (650) 723-3062, zare@stanford.edu

RELEVANT WEB URLS:
http://www.stanford.edu/group/Zarelab
http://www.hhmi.org

By Mark Shwartz

Established in 1953 by aviator-industrialist Howard Hughes, the institute spent more than $560 million in fiscal year 2005 in support of biomedical research, science education and other programs. A complete list of institute professors is available at http://www.hhmi.org.


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