Monday, July 13, 2009

Culture: Zare as Priestley Medalist

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Back in June, Stanford Chemistry professor Richard N. Zare was named the recipient of the 2010 Priestley Medal, the highest honor of the American Chemical Society, granted to those who have made a lifetime contribution to profession of chemistry. While his scientific contributions certainly make him deserving of this award, what really makes Zare such an amazing human being to me is that he understands what it means to be human and demonstrates it on a regular basis.

In my first quarter at Stanford University, I had the privilege of taking Chem 32 (which has since morphed into Chem 31X), an "introductory" chemistry course, from Professors Zare and James P. Collman, who had originated the course in 1992. The course was designed for people with a strong background in chemistry and was not really an introductory course at all, but a vehicle to introduce talented students to advanced concepts to get them excited about chemistry, as was befitting its title "Frontiers of Chemical Science." I would soon learn that the style of this course was reflective of its founding professors--they wanted people to be excited about things.

Unlike some scientists, though, Zare recognizes that there is much more to life than technical work. There was a debate about grading systems going on during my time on "the farm," and I distinctly remember an article in the Stanford Daily in which Zare, while advocating the return of a stricter system, made a point of proposing that each student be given the opportunity to wipe one course off their transcript. "People have deaths in their families, or fall in love," he was quoted as saying. Professor Zare was always displaying empathy.

Zare is the kind of person that can see through a person's actions to what they are feeling and figure out a way to constructively direct them. I once actually received a phone call from him--just minutes after e-mailing him about a summer research opportunity. As I recall, I hadn't included my phone number anywhere in the message, but he had taken the time to look up my number in the university directory and give me a brief call to tell me who to follow up with and encourage me to actually do it. In the end, I ended up working for a different professor in the department that summer, but I'll never forget the motivating phone call.

When Stanford inaugurated a lecture series called "What Matters to Me and Why," in which faculty gave talks over lunch about their personal beliefs rather than just their academic interests, it was entirely unsurprising that the first lecture in the series was given by Zare. Nobody better embodied this kind of sharing of humanity.

When Richard N. Zare gives his Priestley Medal speech next year, I'm sure in the introductions that there will be a lot of focus on his educational contributions in addition to his technical contributions to many sub-fields of chemistry. I just hope that the audience doesn't miss that Zare is a tremendously human person, which is the main reason he is one of the people I most admire in this world.

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