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UW-Eau Claire professor receives prestigious Dreyfus Award

August 22, 2012
Dr. Kurt Wiegel
Dr. Kurt Wiegel

EAU CLAIRE — For the fifth time, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire chemistry faculty member has been honored with the prestigious Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award.

Dr. Kurt Wiegel, associate professor of chemistry, is one of just seven people nationwide to receive the 2012 award, which recognizes young chemical sciences faculty as outstanding teachers and for their scholarly research with undergraduates.

"Honestly it was a shock," Wiegel said of winning the award. "When I opened the letter it took about two reads before it really sank in."

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation awarded a research grant of $60,000 to Wiegel for his work on enhanced stability and formation of hydrogen-bonded mesophases in macromolecules — specifically, liquid crystalline molecules, which are used widely in electronic products such as computer monitors, cellphone displays and watches.

"We're studying the molecules that make up the vast majority of our display devices," Wiegel explained. "We're trying to make them more physically stable for use at a wider range of temperatures."

In a letter nominating Wiegel for the award, Dr. Patricia A. Kleine, UW-Eau Claire provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, wrote, "Dr. Wiegel has been one of the university's strongest student mentors since coming to UW-Eau Claire. He has mentored 40 research students within the broad theme of supra-molecular liquid crystals."

Wiegel, who has published eight research articles with 20 undergraduate co-authors during his eight years at UW-Eau Claire, said faculty-student collaboration is one of the most rewarding aspects of his job.

"My students and I have gained a lot from this level of interaction," Wiegel said. "I think this award reflects on the high caliber of research carried out at UW-Eau Claire. Of the schools with the highest number of these awards, we're one of the few public institutions on the list."

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation is a leading nonprofit organization devoted to the advancement of the chemical sciences. This is the fourth time since 2001, and the fifth time overall, that a member of the UW-Eau Claire chemistry faculty has been named a Dreyfus Award recipient. Previous Dreyfus winners are Dr. Fred King in 1983, Dr. Jason Halfen in 2001, Dr. James Phillips in 2004 and Dr. Stephen Drucker in 2006. All five are current members of the chemistry faculty.

"I can't think of a more prestigious award for a chemistry faculty member at an undergraduate institution," said Dr. Michael Carney, professor of chemistry and department chair. "At the time of our last award, Dr. Scott Hartsel, who was department chair, said having a Dreyfus award winner on our faculty was like having a Nobel Prize winner on the faculty of a large research university. I really can't state it any better than that. The fact that we have five Dreyfus awardees on our staff is absolutely remarkable."

Since 2001, only one other school in the nation, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, has received more Dreyfus awards than UW-Eau Claire. Carney said that kind of recognition is important for the chemistry program.

"These awards can be powerful tools to help recruit exceptional faculty and students," Carney said. "Prospective faculty realize that they'll be surrounded by outstanding colleagues, and students realize they'll get a great education and be able to participate in research projects similar to what they'd experience in graduate school."

Wiegel said the recognition and the money from the award will help him continue his research projects with undergraduate students.

"Research is a much more individualized teaching opportunity, and it's a much more intensive educational experience," Wiegel said. "This award will provide the funding to continue this level of collaboration with many more students for years to come."

Wiegel said he maintains connections with almost all of the students who have participated in research with him and hopes that connection continues.

"We even have a Facebook group called 'Veterans of Wiegel Research,'" Wiegel said. "It helps us keep in touch after they've left and lets everyone know what they're doing now. I have this grand delusion that sometime near my retirement we'll manage to get everyone together."

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