College of Letters and Science Distinguished Faculty Awards: Advising and Research Mentoring

By Terry Strathman
September 23, 2004

On September 23, 2004, the College of Letters and Science honored seven faculty members for their excellence in advising and mentoring. Gary Firestone (MCB) and Deborah Nolan (Statistics) were presented with the Rhoda H. Goldman Award for Distinguished Faculty Advising of Undergraduates. The winners of the L&S Award for Distinguished Research Mentoring of Undergraduates were William Berry (Earth and Planetary Sciences), David Cohen (Rhetoric), Stefano DellaVigna (Economics), William Kahan (Mathematics), and Jeremy Thorner (MCB).

In its third year, the Rhoda H. Goldman Award for Distinguished Faculty Advising of Undergraduates recognizes faculty members who have made a significant contribution to undergraduate education by offering outstanding counsel and guidance to undergraduates planning their academic and professional careers. The L&S Award for Distinguished Research Mentoring of Undergraduates recognizes faculty members who create extraordinary research opportunities for students beyond the classroom, and who devote unusual time and effort to encouraging and developing undergraduate researchers.

Describing the importance of their distinguished service to the College, Dean of the Undergraduate Division and moderator Robert Holub noted that, "in an institution as large as Berkeley, personal contact with a faculty member is especially meaningful. Faculty in the departments can play a critical role in introducing undergraduates to the intellectual landscape of the campus, and the major area of study."

The deans of the College presented the awards. Following are excerpts from their remarks.

Rhoda H. Goldman Award for Distinguished Faculty Advising of Undergraduates

As head adviser in the Cell and Developmental Biology division of MCB, Gary Firestone potentially finds 440 majors at his door. Nevertheless, as one student remarked in Professor Firestone's nomination, ". . . he took personal time out to sit and talk with me and make me feel like an individual." Another said "Professor Firestone asked lots of questions, not only about what I had done and was planning to do academically, but also about my life outside the classroom." The words"helpful," "friendly," and "supportive" appear again and again in student evaluations. Colleagues respect his "unflagging energy and enthusiasm." By all accounts Gary Firestone has been the students' "most favorite faculty adviser" for 17 years.

The Statistics department has doubled its majors in recent years—due in part to Professor Deborah Nolan's reshaping of the undergraduate experience in the major. She helped institute a weekly research seminar to give majors a sense of where they might apply their statistical talents after graduation. But most importantly, she has made regular meetings with the faculty adviser an essential part of the Statistics major's experience. A colleague has called this part of "the culture change [that]Professor Nolan brought to undergraduate advising." Letters from her advisees make it clear that these required meetings can be a pleasure. Other imply what this student stated, "Professor Nolan is certainly why I am a stat major!"

The L&S Award for Distinguished Research Mentoring of Undergraduates

Professor Bill Berry, of Earth and Planetary Sciences, is honored for his work with the Environmental Sciences Teaching Program, a cornerstone of the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program. The apprentices in Bill Berry's program have taken underrepresented and economically disadvantaged high school students into the field with them, teaching them the data collection and fieldwork skills they have learned in their wetlands research. Bill Berry has encouraged his apprentices to undertake individual research projects and to present at professional conferences. Last year 12 of Bill's undergraduates presented at the AAAS Pacific Division meeting, winning the President's Award for Excellence and the Peterson Award for Excellence in Science Education.

Since Professor David Cohen of Rhetoric began enlisting research apprentices for his "War Crimes" project in fall 1995, two dozen undergraduates have had the opportunity to learn archival and other research skills under his guidance. One student wrote, "working for Professor Cohen . . . has been one of the most amazing experiences I have had as an undergraduate . . . . He actively encouraged inquiry and allowed me to explore war crimes issues, which . . . remain untapped by today's scholars." One student who completed a particularly complex study wrote, "Professor Cohen has been a truly exceptional mentor—he has both inspired me to pursue research and has supported me in all of my research endeavors . . . . His consistent belief in my ability . . . has in fact inspired me to reach those heights."

Professor Stefano Della Vigna joined the Economics department in 2002 and is already a model mentor in the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program. Few faculty have created such active roles for apprentices. One apprentice wrote, "To tell you the truth, it's hard to distinguish between Stefano's overall willingness to help people in whatever endeavor they may pursue and his specific encouragement and support in the field of research." Wrote another, "Stefano is never too busy for questions about research, classes, or just politics in general. . . . He encourages us to think about how what we do will effect the world and challenges us to think about how we can extend our observations . . . elsewhere in life."

For ten years Professor William Kahan has prepared Berkeley undergraduates to compete in the annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition, one of the oldest and most prestigious prizes for young students interested in mathematics. Working with twenty or so students each year, Professor Kahan has run a sort of mathematics research laboratory in preparation for this international competition. The chair of Mathematics noted that, "Professor Kahan's dedication and enthusiasm to work with these students year after year is the great fortune of the Berkeley Mathematics department. . . . Students get the chance to stretch their minds, work with each other,see how to slay difficult problems, and begin to see the fun in mathematical research."

Jeremy Thorner, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, has had undergraduates in his lab since 1975. Many recent graduates wrote to support his nomination, one alumnus noting, "As a student in Professor Thorner's laboratory, one quickly understands that he expects a lot from his students. These expectations are simultaneously frightening and empowering. Undergraduates in the Thorner lab . . . are an integral part of important research projects in which they are expected to think scientifically, independently and creatively."

The L & S colloquia, which take place once or twice each semester, provide opportunities to learn about and discuss the overarching issues affecting undergraduate education at U C Berkeley. For more information on upcoming or past programs, contact Alix Schwartz at or (510) 642-8378.

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