Featured Scientists On scifun.org

The Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy salutes men and women
who have excelled in scientific research and teaching and who inspire us
to promote learning and effective communication.

Helen E. Blackwell    Jane Lubchenco

Richard N. Zare: Teaching and research in tandem has led to a groundbreaking career

“No one has ever chosen a career in chemistry based on a great exam or homework problem. You’ve got to get students into the lab, where they can use their minds and their hands.”

Richard N. ZareA prolific researcher – more than 800 publications, four books and 50 patents – a gifted teacher and mentor, and an outstanding public servant, Professor Richard N. Zare ranks among the dozen most influential leaders in the world in chemistry and the natural sciences. He has received the National Medal of Science, the Welch Award, the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, and is currently the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor. He is a pioneer in the field of laser chemistry, but also devotes much of his time to teaching and promoting science literacy. Professor Zare has taught an introductory chemistry class every year since arriving at Stanford in 1977 and says teaching, whether in the classroom or elsewhere, is a “secret weapon” that enhances his own research.

Professor Zare’s research in laser chemistry has resulted in a greater understanding of chemical reactions at the molecular level, contributing to solving a variety of problems in chemical analysis. He and his students have used this approach to study many types of matter, including analyzing organic molecules from a Mars meteorite for signs of life. He also conducts research on items much more down to earth: studying the bubble movement in beer as it’s poured into a glass.

According to Professor Zare, the core of successful research is questioning the most fundamental assumptions; teaching forces him to do just that. It has made him realize the importance of lab work and getting students involved in research. “No one has ever chosen a career based on a great exam or homework problem,” he says. “You’ve got to get students into the lab, where they can use their minds and their hands.”  One of his goals is to foster creativity in science, and he urges students to take risks in their work. “Creativity requires passion, resources, and the daring to play with ideas and accept the risk that what you are doing might completely fail.”

As a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor, he has designed a hands-on, multi-disciplinary course to explore the relationships of organisms with light. Students study everything from photosynthesis to eyesight, combining chemistry, physics and biology to learn how organisms sense and use light. A second course in biochemistry is aimed at motivating students to pursue a research career. 

In March 2010, Zare was awarded the American Chemical Society’s Priestley Medal for his lifetime achievement in and contributions to chemistry. The highest honor that the ACS bestows, this award is a measure of the great impact he has had on many facets of chemistry, including chemical education, science literacy and research. His Priestley Medal address on fostering creativity is a must read. He has also received the 2010 BBVA Foundation of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences. You can read his acceptance speech here.

  Richard Zare is the recipient of 10 honorary degrees and numerous awards. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Great Britain, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Indian Academy of Sciences, and he has served six years on the policy board of the National Science Foundation — the last two as chair.

"In the same spirit as the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy, I believe in the importance of heightening the awareness of the general public to the role science plays in our daily lives. To me, what is more significant than understanding the basis of any specific scientific fact is the appreciation of what scientists try to do to understand better the world around us. To me, that is the real meaning of scientific literacy."

Visit Professor Zare's website

Professor Zare discusses why writing matters





For more information contact SciFun@chem.wisc.edu