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White House honors UW-Madison engineering physics professor

January 24, 2011

President Barack Obama has named a University of Wisconsin–Madison engineering physics professor as one of 15 recipients of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM), the highest federal award for mentoring in the country.

Professor Douglass Henderson is being honored for his significant contributions to mentoring pre-college, undergraduate and graduate students and young faculty, particularly underrepresented minorities in engineering and the sciences.

In particular, the award recognizes Henderson’s efforts in establishing and growing the Graduate Engineering Research Scholars (GERS) program in the UW–Madison College of Engineering. GERS is a unique graduate fellowship program designed to offer students a support network of peers. Through GERS, students become members of a supportive community of UW–Madison engineering graduate students, faculty and staff.

With the help of the UW–Madison Graduate School and in collaboration with Rice University, Henderson established the GERS program in 1999 at a time when the number of minority graduate students enrolled in Ph.D. programs in the UW–Madison College of Engineering had decreased nearly to zero. The program now has steady participation of more than 50 Ph.D. students, and since its inception has enabled 33 underrepresented students to graduate with Ph.D. degrees.

“Professor Henderson has cultivated partnerships and worked to create an environment in which faculty, staff and students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and can succeed,” says College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy. “This high honor is a fitting recognition of the great time, energy and dedication he has devoted to the people and programs on this campus and elsewhere.”

Henderson built on the success of the GERS model by working with colleagues to expand the program to other parts of the UW–Madison campus. He has been successful in securing National Science Foundation funding to expand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational opportunities for diverse students beyond engineering through WIscAMP, a Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program at NSF.

“Henderson is the consummate mentor at all levels,” says Michael Corradini, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor and chair of engineering physics. “From individual students to faculty and administrators to institutions, he always has the goal of increasing the success of ethnic/racial underrepresented minority students in their academic and future careers in STEM fields. He stands as a shining example of how institutional change begins with the commitment of one person.”

Henderson joined the College of Engineering in 1989 after working as a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. His research focus is nuclear engineering, particularly neutral particle transport and reactor physics. He has affiliate appointments with the departments of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering. He served as a faculty adviser to the College of Engineering Diversity Affairs Office; in 2001, the college appointed him assistant dean for diversity affairs and later, he became associate dean for diversity affairs. He remained in that role through 2005, when he returned to research and his leadership of GERS.

Henderson will receive the award at the White House on Thursday, Jan. 27.

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