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Caltech Honours Two Professors For Teaching and Mentorship

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Caltech has announced the recipients of its two highest prizes recognizing outstanding teaching and mentorship.

The 2022–23 Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching, Caltech’s highest teaching prize, has been awarded to Lulu Qian, professor of bioengineering.

The Feynman Prize was established in 1993 to annually honor a professor who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching. It has been endowed through the generosity of Ione and Robert E. Paradise and an anonymous local couple.

Qian’s research utilizes the predictable binding patterns of nucleic acids, such as DNA molecules, to build artificial molecular machines. Over the last eight years at Caltech, Qian developed and taught the course BE/CS 196A: Design and Construction of Programmable Molecular Systems. The course fuses many disciplines, such as computer science, mathematics, biology, nanotechnology, and chemistry, and introduces students to the tools of computer science as applied to molecular engineering as well as to the practical realities of synthesizing and testing their own designs in the laboratory. Notably, there are very few universities that offer such a course.

In a nomination letter for the prize, one student wrote, “Lulu emulates the qualities awarded by the Feynman Teaching Prize as a talented, creative, innovative, and empathetic teacher. She has achieved the incredibly difficult task of creating a course that is loved by both bioengineers and computer scientists, that teaches challenging material to a diverse set of students in an accessible and engaging way, and that grounds students in fundamentals while also encouraging them to think outside the box every step of the way. I cannot think of a more worthy professor for this award, and I hope that you will consider this letter accordingly.”

“I am very surprised and deeply honored,” says Qian. “When I taught this course for the first time, I was afraid that I would mess up everything because I had nearly no experience with education in the U.S. I must thank all the students who took the course in those early years, where the class size was once as small as three. They actively engaged in the evolution of the class and taught me how to be a better teacher. It was also critical that I had generations of dedicated TAs who threw themselves into the course development with me. Together, we tried out new things every year.

“To me, the most meaningful thing about this course is that it exposes students to a molecular engineering research frontier that is interdisciplinary and unconventional, helps them see that the process of designing molecular devices can be as systematic as designing computer programs, and strengthens their detective skills in a world of molecules through logical and creative thinking,” she adds.

Qian received her PhD from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2007. She joined the Caltech faculty in 2013 as an assistant professor and became professor of bioengineering in 2019.

Some of the most recent winners of the prize include Maura Dykstra, assistant professor of history; Rob Phillips, the Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics, Biology, and Physics in the divisions of Engineering and Applied Science and Biology and Biological Engineering; Melany Hunt, Dotty and Dick Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Ali Hajimiri, Bren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering; Harry Gray, Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry; and Brian Stoltz, Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry.

The 2023 Shirley M. Malcom Prize for Excellence in Mentoring has been awarded to Marianne Bronner, the Edward B. Lewis Professor of Biology and director of Caltech’s Beckman Institute.

The prize honors senior trustee Shirley Malcom’s long-standing commitment, via her personal mentorship, national leadership, and international advocacy, to make STEM education and access equitable for all. The prize honors annually a professor who, through mentoring, supports the achievement and well-being of students.

In nominations for the prize, a former lab member said, “Through her mentoring efforts, Marianne has nurtured the career of hundreds of undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral trainees. Much like Shirley Malcom, Marianne has a long-standing commitment to making STEM education accessible and equitable for all.”

Bronner, a pioneer in the field of developmental biology, joined the Caltech faculty in 1996. For decades, she has considered mentorship as her highest calling. A nomination noted, “She was a proponent of a ‘culture of belonging’ before the term was coined. Marianne has also been a strong supporter of women in science, working on many initiatives aimed at inspiring and empowering young women to pursue careers related to STEM. An indication of the impact of Marianne’s mentoring can be found on the list of Bronner lab alumni that hold faculty positions, which includes many individuals from groups often underrepresented in academia.”

“I am extremely honored and humbled by this prize,” says Bronner. “This recognition honors not only me but all of my trainees who are continuing to guide and encourage the next generation of scientists. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Shirley Malcom, who established this award and is an amazing role model who I can only aspire to emulate.”

The inaugural Malcom Prize was awarded in 2022 to Scott Cushing, assistant professor of chemistry.