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Four to receive Hilldale Awards at UW-Madison

April 1, 2014 By Käri Knutson

Four University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty members will receive Hilldale Awards in recognition of their contributions to teaching, research and service.

The annual awards, given since 1987, are based on the university’s four divisions: biological sciences, physical sciences, social studies, and arts and humanities.

The awards are sponsored by the Hilldale Fund, which supports the advancement of scholarly activity at UW–Madison. The recipients will be honored at the Monday, April 7 meeting of the university’s Faculty Senate.

Here are this year’s recipients:

Elliott Sober

Elliott Sober

Arts and Humanities: Elliott Sober, Hans Reichenbach Professor and William F. Vilas Research Professor, Department of Philosophy

Sober has devoted 40 years to UW–Madison, receiving numerous awards for his work. He was recently elected chair of the Section on History and Philosophy of Science at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Elliott Sober is without question the finest philosopher of biology in the world, and he is certainly among a small handful of the finest philosophers of science in the world,” writes nominator Russ Shafer-Landau, chair and professor of the Department of Philosophy.

Sober became a Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation named professor at 41 and a Vilas Research Professor just four years later. He has been elected to serve as the president of the Philosophy of Science Association and the President of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

“Given his truly amazing record of research productivity, one might surmise that Sober has devoted just about the whole of his career to cloistering himself in his office and focusing nearly all of his attention on his publications,” Shafer-Landau writes. “Not so. Not only is Elliott a highly sought-after teacher and mentor, but he routinely earns student evaluations that place him in the top ranks of our faculty teachers. Elliott is widely known for his engaging and relaxed teaching style, for the respect he shows his students and for his willingness to meet with them outside of the classroom.”

Donata Oertel

Donata Oertel

Biological Sciences: Donata Oertel, professor, Department of Neuroscience

Oertel has been researching auditory systems for more than 30 years. She began her career at UW–Madison in 1981. Her early research was conducted in model organisms in which she addressed basic mechanisms of electrical signaling in the control of behavior and sensory processing. Oertel’s work has helped lead to a deeper understanding of how the brain processes and interprets sounds, which has broad implications for treating hearing loss.

“The large body of fundamental work she has contributed to our understanding of auditory processing has established her as an international leader in this field,” writes nominator says Tom C.T. Yin, professor and interim chair of the Department of Neuroscience. “The body of work Dr. Oertel has produced in 30 years of continuously funded research on the auditory system represents a major advance in our understanding of how the brain processes and interprets sound. Her pioneering contributions to research establish her as a world leader, and a neuroscientist who brings visibility and prestige to this campus.”

Oertel has taught 15 different academic courses during her tenure and delivered lectures in a wide range of subjects to a wide range of students.

“Her versatility as a teacher is truly remarkable,” Yin says. “Dr. Oertel is an inspiring and tireless teacher. She has been creating new courses with innovative new curricula, creating and delivering many lectures in a wide range of fields over a broad range of levels of student on our campus, and managing teams of faculty with varied fields of expertise from many different departments.”

Thomas Kuech

Thomas Kuech

Physical Sciences: Thomas F. Kuech, Milton J. & A. Maude Shoemaker and Beckwith-Bascom Professor and Chair, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Kuech has established a global reputation for his contributions to the field of materials science. He has published more than 460 journal publications, which have been cited more than 6,000 times. Kuech has held a professorship in the Department of Physics at Nanjing University in China and is currently a visiting fellow at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“Over the past 20 years, Tom has made remarkably deep and broad contributions to UW–Madison based on excellence in advanced materials research, a strong vision of the undergraduate and graduate educational mission of U.S. universities and generous and highly respected professional service,” writes nominator Nicholas L. Abbott, John T. and Magdalen L. Sobota Professor and director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

Kuech was elected in 2010 to the National Academy of Engineering and elected in 2012 as fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Overall, Tom’s contributions to the field of materials science are numerous, as evidenced by his published work,” Abbott says. “He has substantially influenced every aspect of the field and inspired numerous follow-on studies in impurity incorporation, ordering and substrate engineering. His technical publications and patents demonstrate his creativity, deep insights into the fundamentals and interest in addressing important technological problems. He is the intellectual leader of his field.”

He has also been a champion of increased interdisciplinary experiences in undergraduate education and improving the way we teach.

“Through his international standing in research and associated close interactions with foreign universities, Tom has brought unique perspectives to the college on issues related to national competitiveness of the U.S. educational system,” Abbott says. “These perspectives have caused Tom to be a catalyst for positive change in the educational experience of undergraduates.”

Donald Downs

Donald Downs

Social Studies: Donald Downs, Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science, Law and Journalism and Glenn B. & Cleone Orr Hawkins Professor, political science

Downs’ work has been highly interdisciplinary and reviewed in journals focused on law, political science, history, psychology, psychiatry, education, philosophy and public policy, among others. He has also been an influential teacher.

“Donald Downs is a treasure,” writes nominator John Coleman, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science. “He is the consummate scholar who educates through his research, teaching and service, and by the remarkable way in which he weaves these threads together. Over his career, students by the dozens, even the hundreds, have lauded him as a life-changer, as the professor who taught them to think, as the professor who taught them how to do leading-edge research, as the professor who taught them how to live a life that meets the ideals they profess, as the professor who got them on the path to their future.”

Downs won the 1989 University of Wisconsin Kiekofer Distinguished Teaching Award as well as the University of Wisconsin Pan Hellenic Council Teaching Award more than five times. In 1992, he was on the Wisconsin Students Association List of Top 100 Professors.

He has also become a trusted source for local, state and national media seeking expert commentary on constitutional questions and issues related to civil liberties.

“Downs is a great teacher with a reputation among students to match,” Coleman says. “Any course he offers is guaranteed to fill. He regularly teaches very large enrollment courses, and he also offers a number of small enrollment seminars that frequently prove to be for many students, their most significant intellectual experience at Wisconsin. He has been the bedrock of our graduate courses on law and politics and has supervised a large number of Ph.D. dissertations.”