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2009-2010 Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching

Dennis Dougherty Awarded Caltech's Highest Teaching Honor

June 16, 2010

In recognition of his facility for bringing great chemistry into the classroom, Professor Dennis Dougherty has been awarded Caltech's most prestigious teaching honor, the Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Dougherty, the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry, was selected for his "exceptional ability to render difficult concepts in organic chemistry accessible to a broad cross section of undergraduate and graduate students," a skill that has led some of his students to call him "the best lecturer at Caltech."

"I'm not sure I was deserving of it, but it's a great privilege and an honor to have won," says Dougherty, who will receive $3,500 and have an equivalent raise in his annual salary. "I certainly enjoy teaching, and I take it very seriously.

"Chemistry can be a little obscure," adds the Caltech chemist. "But it's a subject I love, and when you are enthusiastic about something, you want to share that enthusiasm with others. I enjoy the challenge of making the field interesting and relevant." Part of that involves "steering clear of what you might call some of the geekier sides of the subject." Says Dougherty, "I try to focus on the bigger conceptual issues that will get students excited about the material and eager to learn more."

Dougherty says that he often discusses approaches to teaching with his wife, a former teacher and now a school superintendent who calls his pedagogic style "creatively traditional." His methods definitely resonate with his students. "A superb teacher, research mentor, and role model to me," said one of the many who nominated him for this year's Feynman Prize, while another praised "his exceptional clarity and explanations that always seemed to go a step farther, deeper, and beyond the normal lecture."

A member of the Caltech faculty since 1979, Dougherty was named a full professor in 1989, and is currently chair of the Caltech faculty. He served as executive officer for chemistry from 1994 to 1999, and was appointed the Hoag Professor in 2002. His research focuses on the underlying chemistry and chemical interactions of molecules involved in learning, memory, and sensory perception, and he is currently investigating the molecular basis for nicotine addiction in the brain.

In talks he has given to the general public about his research, Dougherty employs some of the same techniques that have served him so well in the Caltech lecture hall. "I want people to realize that thinking about the world at the molecular level is very valuable because chemistry has an impact on just about every aspect of our lives," he says. "We've been able to figure out such amazing things about the molecular world in the last few decades, and it's fun to help people appreciate how significant those discoveries are."

Or, as the professor puts it, in the definitive layperson's language, "Chemistry can be cool!"

Elected in 2009 to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors that can be accorded an American scientist, Dougherty is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His awards include the ACS James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, and the AstraZeneca Excellence in Chemistry Award. He is also the recipient of two ASCIT (Associated Students of Caltech) teaching awards and coauthor of the textbook Physical Organic Chemistry.

Named for Caltech physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, who was renowned for his compelling teaching, the Feynman Prize annually honors "a professor who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching." The award, which is based on nominations from across the Caltech community, was endowed in 1993 through the generosity of Ione and Robert E. Paradise, with additional contributions from Mr. and Mrs. William H. Hurt.