Geoffrey Hutchinson of the University of Pittsburgh Receives Prestigious Cottrell Scholar Award for
Tucson, AZ – April 12, 2012 – Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), America’s oldest foundation devoted exclusively to science, announced today that it is honoring Geoffrey R. Hutchinson, assistant professor of materials chemistry, University of Pittsburgh, with a prestigious academic award, the Cottrell Scholar Award. The Award, one of 11 issued nationally this year, recognizes leaders in integrating science teaching and research at America’s top research universities. Each recipient receives a $75,000 grant and admission to an exclusive community of scholars, the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative.
This year’s awards are made as RCSA celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding by Frederick Gardner Cottrell, for whom the awards are named. The awards, instituted in 1994, honor Cottrell, a scientist, inventor and philanthropist. Cottrell was a science visionary, whose invention of the electrostatic precipitator was an early environmental innovation that reduced pollution from smokestacks. Cottrell founded what is now RCSA to provide support for scientific research and experimentation at scholarly institutions.
“RCSA has named Hutchison a 2012 Cottrell Scholar, based on his innovative research as well as his passion for teaching,” said James M. Gentile, RCSA president and CEO.
Hutchison’s research combines theory and experiment across several areas of organic (carbon-based) electronic materials and nanoscience, the study of matter at very tiny scales. One nanometer equals one-millionth of a meter. Matter and energy behave differently at the nanoscale.
He said he became interested in nanoscale science and technology as an undergraduate, when he read legendary physicist Richard Feynman’s 1959 Caltech lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Hutchison said he also realized fairly quickly that “as we reach working micro- and nanoscale devices, the question of energy and power to run small, self-contained devices is critical.”
Hutchison specializes in developing new materials, as well as functional microscale and nanoscale devices. He and his research team focus on building electronic materials from molecular subunits. They use a variety of techniques, including chemical synthesis, theoretical modeling and computer simulation, to design materials with desirable electronic properties.
As a teacher, Hutchison addresses both theory and experiment. He is developing new, interactive software to train research students in the fundamentals of science computation. In chemistry, theorists increasingly use powerful computer programs to predict how atoms and molecules may behave in newly created materials. His work in this area also helps more junior students understand the nature of scientific research.
Hutchison received the Cottrell Scholar Award (CSA) based on his peer-reviewed proposal that included both research and teaching projects.
His CSA science project is aimed at designing new piezoelectric materials. A piezoelectric substance is one that produces an electric charge when a mechanical stress is applied to it. He aims to do this by working from “scratch,” as it were, using basic scientific principles, including those of quantum physics, to assemble chains of piezoelectric molecules that can be incorporated into “thin-films.” Thin-film technology, basically material that is only a few molecules thick, is currently used in electronic devices such as batteries, computer chips and solar panels that generate electricity directly from sunlight.
Hutchison’s CSA teaching project is aimed at developing computer modeling programs to encourage science students to develop critical-thinking abilities, rather than to rely on rote memorization to pass tests.
“Computer simulations and modeling offer an important avenue towards fostering problem-solving, creative inquiry and ‘what-if’ experiences for undergraduates,” he said. “Today’s students are also highly computer literate and have high expectations of software interactivity based on their experiences with video games and instant messaging.”
Hutchison and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh designed and began programming Avogadro, an open-source, freely available molecular modeling and visualization tool. He added that Avogadro is unique in its focus “around a highly interactive, intuitive program with the core goal of allowing students to easily build molecules, make free-form modification, and receive continual feedback.”
“While my group and I contribute about half of the current development effort, the Avagadro community has exploded with over 14 volunteer programmers worldwide, over 200,000 downloads, and translations into more than 20 languages,” Hutchison said.
The Cottrell Scholars program owes its origins to RCSA’s concern with the apparent separation of teaching and research in Ph.D. institutions.
“Rather than being communities of university-scholars, universities are often perceived as collections of specialists,” RCSA’s Gentile said. “We seek to reinforce the growing awareness that these two functions are complementary rather than wholly or partially exclusive.”
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About Research Corporation for Science Advancement – Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org) – formerly known as Research Corporation – was founded in 1912 and is the second-oldest foundation in the United States (after the Carnegie Corporation) and the oldest foundation devoted wholly to science. Research Corporation is a leading advocate for the sciences and a major funder of scientific innovation and of research in America’s colleges and universities. Follow updates from RCSA on Facebook and Twitter.