Profs get top college distinction


Professor Juri Toomre of astrophysical and planetary sciences and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, Professor John M. Wahr of physics and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Professor Jerry W. Rudy of psychology and neuroscience, and Professor John O’Loughlin of geography.

Professor Juri Toomre of astrophysical and planetary sciences and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, Professor John M. Wahr of physics and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Professor Jerry W. Rudy of psychology and neuroscience, and Professor John O’Loughlin of geography.

Four faculty members have been designated Professors of Distinction by the College of Arts and Sciences.

They are: Professor John O’Loughlin of geography, Professor Jerry W. Rudy of psychology and neuroscience, Professor Juri Toomre of astrophysical and planetary sciences and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, and Professor John M. Wahr of physics and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

The honorific title College Professor of Distinction is reserved for scholars and artists of national and international distinction who are also recognized by their college peers as teachers and colleagues of exceptional talent.

“These professors are highly accomplished scholars with high national profiles within their disciplines and with many books, articles and awards among them,” said Todd Gleeson, dean of Arts and Sciences.

“They are also superb teachers and mentors to young scholars pursuing their own studies, and the college is pleased to publicly honor them.”

Rudy said he and his colleagues were “truly privileged” to serve as professors. “We are given the opportunity to deeply explore subject matters of our own choice, hopefully garnering new insights about our chosen subjects, and to communicate what we have learned and think we know to our colleagues and students,” he said.

“On a daily basis, we interact with intelligent, creative and engaging colleagues and students virtually unencumbered by the threat of losing our job or a boss telling us what to do.”

Given those advantages, he said, the additional honor of being named a professor of distinction “seems over the top” and “at once exhilarating and somewhat embarrassing.”

“The University of Colorado is blessed with hundreds of outstanding faculty who are on the cutting edge of their fields and equally deserving of special recognition,” Rudy said.

Rudy’s early research at CU revealed principles of memory development in relationship to brain development. Much of his later work has help to clarify what enables the hippocampus to support what is called episodic memory and what kinds of memory can be supported when this region of the brain in damaged.

He considers his textbook “The Neurobiology of Learning and Memory,” to be his most significant contribution to his field. The book synthesizes much of the work in this field over the last 25 years. Rudy served as chair of the psychology department for eight years.

O’Loughlin said the nomination and award came as a complete surprise.

“Since this is one of CU’s top honors for its faculty, I am genuinely touched and honored by the esteem of my colleagues,” O’Loughlin said. “While I have won many fellowships and research grants, these were initiated by my application; this award is different, since it was initiated and supported by colleagues.”

O’Loughlin said he has a history of challenging undergraduates and fighting grade inflation. “The most rewarding teaching experience at CU is guiding our best students as they embark on honors thesis projects (often nervously), working much harder for two semesters than they thought possible, and then producing works that are successfully defended in an oral examination.”

Similarly, he added, watching former Ph.D. advisees achieve professional successes at top institutions is “immensely satisfying and more than compensates for all the hours reading and critiquing draft manuscripts and dissertation chapters.”

O’Loughlin maintains an inter-disciplinary research program in the Institute of Behavioral Science, working with colleagues in other U.S. universities and also in Russia on the legacies of war since the end of Communism, in both the Balkans and the Caucasus regions.

With continued support from the National Science Foundation, O’Loughlin mixes research approaches (field interviews, public opinion surveys, remote-sensing methods) to try to construct a picture of war-affected societies. “This work does not fit easily into a disciplinary niche, but I think such multiple approaches are necessary for developing a good picture of what societies are like after conflicts have ravaged them.”

Toomre said it has been a “joy” to grow with CU as it has become a “real research powerhouse” in the physical sciences and in astrophysics and space adventures.

“My institute of JILA has gotten three Nobel prizes, and my department of APS is nearly within the top 10 rating in the country—and now has the largest undergraduate program in astronomy,” Toomre added. “I find the CU scene continually refreshing. … The teaching is always demanding if you want to do it well, but it keeps giving a new view of even some topics that I thought I knew pretty thoroughly.”

“Thus, this CU Boulder setting continues to be of great satisfaction to me, and it is a pleasure to be recognized with the Professor of Distinction award,” Toomre added, quipping, “Now I can sign things as ‘Professor of Astrophysics and Distinction,’ as if the latter were an area of inquiry!”

Wahr, too, expressed surprise and gratitude, calling the designation “an unexpected honor.” The faculty in physics and CIRES are uniformly dedicated and talented, he said. “Honestly, though, it’s hard to believe I could be any more ‘distinctive’ than my colleagues here at CU.”

Wahr mentioned a range of geophysical research he’s conducted during 35 years at CU. “But what’s given me the most satisfaction, particularly recently, is my involvement in an ongoing gravity satellite mission called GRACE. This is a remote-sensing mission that never looks directly at the Earth, and yet is arguably the most interdisciplinary Earth-science satellite ever launched.”

“We’ve been able to estimate such diverse things as ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica, groundwater decline across northern India, seasonal circulation patterns in the Red Sea, deformation deep inside the earth caused by large earthquakes, and many other things,” Wahr said. “New and often unexpected signals are constantly showing up in the measurements, which makes the analysis of each new batch of data an exciting event.”

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