Editor’s Note -The Nobel Prize has been a frequent topic at UCSB for the past three years, and especially after UCSB researchers were awarded both the chemistry and physics prizes this year. This article, the final in a four-part series, looks at what those awards mean to students, especially those outside the physical sciences, and how the recognition impacts the school.After three Nobel Prizes in three years, the world has begun to notice UCSB.
The school’s scientific strength has grown in the last 20 years, as committed researchers, such as Nobel Laureates Alan Heeger, Walter Kohn and Herbert Kroemer, changed the way the school practices science.
But for the average Gaucho, a business/economics major who came to the school for the weather and scenery, the personal impact of a Nobel Prize is less clear.
For students outside the physical sciences, the prizes are distant. And for students across disciplines, the school’s emphasis on research affects the amount of time some professors have to prepare for teaching.
Few students in any field of study will criticize the new value of their degree – Ombuds Director Geoffery Wallace noted, there is “something to be said for bragging rights.”
“I think every graduate now will get fair credit for the learning experience they’ve enjoyed with these superb scholars,” he said.
That benefit is enough for most students outside the sciences, even though they may not see a direct result from the prizes.
“I don’t think [the Nobel Prize] had any direct benefit to me; I don’t have any classes with [the winners],” freshman psychology major Zuri Magers said. “But our education is good.”
“It gives the school a better reputation,” senior economics major Zack Gordon said. “I think there’s enough emphasis on teaching, and I think the emphasis on research is good for the school. In my experience, the teaching has been excellent.”
Most faculty and staff agree that increased emphasis on research helps students, who benefit from energized professors presenting the latest advancements in their field.
“One of the signatures of a truly great institution of higher learning is the effective integration of student learning and research,” Vice Chancellor for Research France Cordova said. “This includes classroom learning by excellent teachers who are involved in excellent research, and it includes research experiences for students.”
Professors spending their time on research are spending less time reading journals on education, Physics Dept. Vice Chair Mark Srednicki said. Nonetheless, he spoke fondly of his experience at large research universities, both as a student and as a faculty member.
“It tends to mean at a university where a lot of research is being done, that you are getting classes that are informed by that, and classes that are taught by people at the forefront of research,” he said. “The downside is that you may not get people who are up on the latest techniques of teaching. In the physics dept. we try to make some effort to stay informed on those things.”
The situation is similar in the social sciences and humanities, which have focused much more aggressively on research in the last several years.
“This dept. certainly values research and knows that we have to be good researchers, or we’re just not going to go anywhere, in terms of national rankings, in terms of getting good people here, and so on,” Political Science Dept. Chair Lorraine McDonnell said.
As the social sciences and humanities have moved in that direction, however, professors have less time to devote to education. Like the physical sciences, most faculty say they are excited by their work, which can charge up the classroom environment.
“I would argue that if people are good researchers, they’re usually going to be good teachers. Because they’re energized by their research, they’ll bring that into the classroom,” McDonnell said. “On the whole, better teachers are good researchers, and it pays off for students.”
The humanities have a similar connection with research and teaching, Humanities and Fine Arts Dean David Marshall said. “[Professors] test their ideas with students – it grows out of that interaction,” he said. “This improves the education because you don’t have professors giving lectures they wrote 30 years ago. They are excited about their lectures and students are exposed to the most up-to-date work.”
While most UCSB physical science deptartments are consistently ranked in the top 10 in national rankings, the social sciences and humanities are not as renowned. However, university research funding has switched to focus more equally on the humanities and social sciences.
“Probably about three or four years ago, the campus administration, both the chancellor and vice chancellor for research, began to realize that more attention needed to be paid to the social sciences and the humanities in terms of getting resources to them,” McDonnell said. “My sense of what’s going on right now is they’re trying to strengthen them the way they strengthened the sciences and engineering.”
The school’s science reputation did not climb to its present height overnight, or without help. For a long time, UCSB did not have a scientific reputation. When Heeger first looked at the school in 1982, he said its nickname was UC Sunny Beach. Kroemer had a similar impression on his first visit 25 years ago, but acknowledged the remarkable turnaround.
“Back in ’76, this looked like a Mickey Mouse place,” Kroemer said. “But the transformation since has been simply staggering.”
McDonnell said she sees the same process happening in the social sciences, which are receiving increased research funding for a variety of projects.
Research money is more readily available for a school with three Nobel Prize winners, as government agencies, donors and alumni bestow their favors upon the university.
“They see that there’s something really happening, and then the chancellor goes to such and such a person and says, ‘Look, here’s what we’re doing, and now we want to do this, and will you help us?’ ” Heeger said. “Well, if you’re throwing money … if the institution’s really got you excited, you’re more willing to do that.”
“Our friends and alumni support UCSB because they recognize that we are a leading teaching and research institution,” Chancellor Henry Yang said. “I have received many calls and congratulations from current and potential donors. They are enthusiastic about investing in a campus of such quality and vision.”
But even as the money pours in, its distribution remains tricky. Researchers need increasing amounts to pay for people and increasingly sophisticated and expensive equipment.
“You can’t do science without resources,” Heeger said. “It’s no longer possible to do string and ceiling wax sort of experiments. If we were going to do an experiment like that today, it wouldn’t be done that way. It takes money.”
While the cost of large research projects has not gone unnoticed by faculty and administrators, staff members also require funding, and some say the fast investment in projects and in recruiting new researchers has overshadowed their needs.
“I think [the Nobel recognition] has been a tremendous plus for the campus,” said Eric Zimmerman, an academic adviser in the environmental studies program. “But I think sometimes the administration puts their focus on higher-caliber faculty rather than high-level grad students and staff who support them. The university needs to be careful in recruiting these big-name researchers by keeping in mind the infrastructure that supports them.”
Zimmerman said the University of California is ideally supposed to be a three-tiered system of research, education and outreach, and noted that at times, UCSB doesn’t concentrate enough on keeping a balance.
“I feel staff resources on this campus are stretched too thin, and I believe that affects education,” he said. “It can be detrimental to the other two if there is not a balance.”
Debbie Ceder, UCSB’s Coalition of University Employees president and a 13-year staff member in the physics dept., said while most professors spend time on instruction, some intensely focus on research projects at the expense of education.
“Working with faculty, I can see so many of them are caught up in their research,” she said. “Oftentimes, I can see that they don’t prepare as well for their lectures, and that could be because they are so focused on the research.”
Still, students are pleased with the rising stock of their degrees.
“I think the price you pay for the recognition is worth it,” senior biology major Ian McAvoy said. “Sure it might interfere a bit, but I feel it’s worth it.”
And, for many students, research is an integral part of the undergraduate education. Yang said more than one-quarter of the undergraduates on campus is involved in a research project, either with a graduate student or faculty member.
“Our top researchers are also among our top teachers,” Yang said. “Our excellence as a university rises out of our commitment to provide a challenging and vibrant learning environment,” he said. “After all, our students are the reason we are all here.”