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Dr. Jim Phillips receives national award for research mentoring

| Denise Olson

James Phillips

Dr. Jim Phillips, professor and chair of chemistry at UW-Eau Claire

The chemistry division of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) has announced the 2020 recipients of its Outstanding Mentorship Award, which recognizes excellence in mentoring undergraduate researchers, honoring exceptional mentoring and advising by higher education faculty across all subdisciplines of chemistry.

Dr. Jim Phillips, professor and chair of the UW-Eau Claire chemistry department, is one of three recipients this year. Phillips, who received the 2015 UW-Eau Claire Excellence in Mentoring Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity Award, joined the UW-Eau Claire faculty in 1998 after completing his doctorate at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Colorado-Boulder. 

The new director of UW-Eau Claire's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP), Dr. Catherine Chan, is pleased to announce this award.

"Jim Phillips has an established record as a successful researcher and mentor, guiding his students on their own scientific discovery through hands-on research, presentations and publications," Chan said. "This recognition by the CUR Chemistry Division is a testament to the high-quality mentorship Jim provides and a glimpse into the added value he brings to the learning experiences of Blugold students." 

When asked about his mentoring philosophy, Phillips says that answer is easy.

"I do this because I like it. It is really rewarding to work with students and teach them firsthand what it is like to be a scientist in the trenches, doing things not at all conveyed in a classroom setting," said Phillips, whose lab examines condensed-phase effects on the structural properties of molecular complexes. "That means not only being in the lab, pursuing the data and trying to make sense of new, unexpected results, but also engaging the community, presenting those results at meetings, and digesting what other similar research is happening. It is a community out there.

"This is where I have done my best teaching, or at the very least, achieved my most significant and ambitious outcomes," he said. "Most notably, beyond simply taking students to do things they would never see in the classroom, we work diligently on writing and presentation skills — valuable career skills regardless of their future path. Some people still think that engaging in research takes place at the expense of teaching — but engaging in my research group and working with my students in the most intense and impactful form of teaching I do."

An established leader and mentor

Phillips has a well-established track record as a research mentor, and the following highlights show only part of the picture of student-faculty collaborative research success he has built in the chemistry department. During his 22 years at UW-Eau Claire, Phillips has:

  • Mentored 48 research students, 13 of whom matriculated to doctoral programs and four to master's programs.
  • Published 22 peer-reviewed manuscripts as principal investigator from UW-Eau Claire, resulting in 45 student citations.
  • Mentored students who have presented a total of 67 times at conferences, including 40 since 2015. One student presented at CUR's Posters on the Hill in 2012.
  • Received two major research-related awards from UW-Eau Claire, the inaugural  2015 Excellence in Mentoring Research, Scholarship, or Creative Activity Award, initiated via student nominations; and the 2013 College of Arts and Sciences Career Teaching Award, based in part on effective student mentoring.
  • Mentored 20 students through CHEM 497, a research manuscript-writing course, since 2010. This includes seven successful Departmental Honors candidates, for which the paper must be reviewed by department faculty.

In addition to these direct results of his mentoring work with students, Phillips has also been a leader in programmatic efforts to bolster undergraduate research, as well as research-related professional development for faculty. These efforts include:

  • Being a two-term member of the CUR Chemistry Council and a chemistry representative to the NCUR Oversight Committee. 
  • Co-leading the development of the UW-Eau Claire bid to host an upcoming NCUR conference, developing programmatic themes targeting advances in participation by two-year colleges and underrepresented minority students, and elevating the profile of creative and artistic contributions to NCUR.  
  • Chairing the department while UW-Eau Claire was established in 2008 as a host site for the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) summer program, and mentored two REU students.
  • Promoting more course-embedded research and project-based learning, including within the chemistry capstone course, CHEM 438.
  • Mentoring of junior faculty.
  • Setting a goal, as department chair, to reach 100% participation by chemistry majors in collaborative research.

The real proof: Research student stories

Former research student of Phillips and 2013 graduate Amanda Buchberger is an assistant professor of biochemistry at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Buchberger submitted a nomination letter for Phillips to receive this award, and she is thrilled to know that he was selected for the honor. 

"Jim provided me a positive, honest and effective example of what it means to be a good mentor and teacher," Buchberger said. "By following his example, I successfully mentored four graduate students and an undergraduate student during my Ph.D. I still look back gratefully at all the time he took with me to develop my research, writing and communication skills, and I love being able to do the same for my mentees."  

Anna Waller, a 2015 graduate with majors in chemistry, Spanish and Latin American studies, recently completed her Ph.D. in food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois–Urbana Champaign and is working as an agricultural marketing specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Waller sees Phillips' real strength in mentoring to be the holistic approach he takes to teaching and mentoring. 

"While Dr. Phillips taught us the importance of scientific research and the skills needed to succeed, more importantly, he motivated us to never lose sight of our other passions and interests," Waller said. "In his lab, I didn't only learn to be a physical chemist, but to also be an engaged citizen with critical thinking skills beyond the classroom or lab. What makes him an extraordinary mentor is his genuine interest in students succeeding in all aspects of life."

A campus member who is quite familiar with Phillips' mentoring is Dr. Karen Havholm, the recently retired director of ORSP. Havholm's 26-year career at UW-Eau Claire included 13 years directing the nationally recognized faculty-student collaborative research program on this campus. 

"Jim Phillips has worked with many student researchers over the years and has developed a highly intentional and successful mentoring program. A particular strength of his research program is that students are challenged and supported in writing their work and results up for publication, with great success. As a longtime CUR Councilor and the first recipient of the UW-Eau Claire Excellence in Mentoring Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity award, I am happy to see Jim join the ranks of our mentors who have been nationally recognized for this work."  

Full-circle moment

For Phillips, being recognized for his mentoring of undergraduate students is a time to think back on his own early influences as a researcher. Due to current COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Phillps had to cancel a trip to Vermont to join in celebrating the retirement of his undergraduate research mentor, Dr. Sunhee Choi, at Middlebury College. 

"My experience in undergraduate research and being mentored by a very encouraging and motivated mentor had a major impact on my decision to pursue this career and to make sure that mentoring was a part of it," Phillips said. 

For her part, Choi was very happy to learn that her former student has earned this prestigious award but was not at all surprised. 

"I am grateful that Jim attributes his own early interest and success in research to the mentorship I offered him," Choi said. "But really all I did was to give him the instrumentation, materials and lab, then leave him alone to figure out what to do independently. It was such a joy to see him happily working in the lab. I hardly gave him any help. He did it all independently for the joy of discovery, a true scientist." 

Top photo caption: Students Nick Hora, Anna Waller and Nikki Weiss worked with Dr. Jim Phillips on a 2015 project involving freezing of dilute gas mixtures like neon and argon at low temperatures, in a process called "matrix isolation."