Chemistry's Lauren Benz Earns Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Associate Professor of Chemistry Lauren Benz, left, has received the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award. She is the fourth USD chemistry professor since 2011 to earn this national award.Associate Professor of Chemistry Lauren Benz, left, has received the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award. She is the fourth USD chemistry professor since 2011 to earn this national award.

For the fourth time since 2011, a University of San Diego professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department has received the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, a nationally recognized honor.

Lauren Benz, a Clare Boothe Luce Associate Professor at USD, is one of seven recipients nationally chosen by The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, a leading non-profit organization established in 1946 by chemist, inventor and businessman Camille Dreyfus and devoted to the advancement of the chemical sciences. 

The Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, named to honor Henry, Camille’s late brother, provides an unrestricted research grant of $60,000 to faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions who are accomplished researchers and committed educators, according to the Dreyfus Foundation. 

“The Dreyfus Award is about the balance between teaching and research because they go together,” Benz said. “USD is a natural place where it can happen and happen well.” 

Benz joins three USD Chemistry and Biochemistry colleagues, Jeremy Kua (2011), Peter Iovine (2012) and Tim Clark (2016), as Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award recipients. Joining Benz as 2017 winners are Reed College’s Juliane Fry, Santa Clara University’s Amelia Fuller, Western Washington University’s John Gilbertson, Central Michigan University’s Benjamin Swarts, Haverford College’s Helen White and College of William and Mary’s Douglas Young. 

Award-Winning Professor, Researcher 

Benz, who came to USD in 2009 as an assistant professor, has been an associate professor since 2015. The Dreyfus Award is the latest honor for Benz, who has previously received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award in 2013, an American Chemical Society Rising Star Award (2014) and the Cottrell Scholar (2015) by the Research Corporation. She has earned two USD awards — the McNair Scholars’ Distinguished Faculty Member of the Year (2013) and the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award (2014) by the Office of Undergraduate Research. 

Her research, which examines the surface chemistry of complex materials, enables students in her lab to gain a quality undergraduate research learning experience and it has created a solid pipeline to graduate schools, medical profession, industry jobs and more. 

“My experience at USD has been great. One of my favorite things is you really can merge your research and teaching interests because our class sizes are small enough that you really get to know the students at the freshman level to when they are juniors and seniors.” 

Benz’s excitement upon receiving the Dreyfus Award, predictably, was mainly student-focused. “The award looks at your past accomplishments, which is a nice opportunity to go through everything and remind myself of all the great things I’ve been able to do with students,” she said. “Functionally, for the next five years, I get to have at least one student in the lab every summer, and money for supplies so that can keep the pipeline going, which is really important.” 

In her application, Benz stated, “I’ve been fortunate to work with 23 different undergraduate student researchers, most of who worked multiple years in my group, many of whom (14) coauthored publications. As a faculty member at a primarily undergraduate institution, I consider the most important benchmark of my success to be the success of my students, especially those whom I’ve mentored in my research lab.” 

A few Torero alumni who were noted in her application, Miranda Stratton and Elizabeth “Bette” Webster, are both current PhD students at Stanford University. Another USD alumna and one of Benz’s very first research students, Michelle Mezher, recently earned her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and returned to USD to give a special endowed alumni lecture to members of USD’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. 

Rising Star, Leader in a Supportive Environment

Benz’s own ascension academically came from a series of experiences in which she transitioned from the east and west coasts. A native of Coventry, R.I., she graduated summa cum laude with a BS in Chemistry from the University of Rhode Island. She did a summer NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at Santa Clara University. She then earned her PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and certificate in college and university teaching at UC Santa Barbara. After a two-year Postdoctoral Fellowship at Harvard University, she received the Clare Boothe Luce Professorship to come to USD. 

Benz praised her USD department colleagues and a supportive environment for contributing mightily to her success. “I came in a few years after the (Shiley Center for Science and Technology) building was built and right after the department development award, so there was a lot of momentum. They had brought new equipment, new facilities, and new staff onboard to really help promote and advance people’s research programs, making it equally as strong as the teaching. There were several awards that went to my colleagues that I could look at and try to help me think about how I’m going to write this proposal. Pretty much every award I’ve received I’ve not been the first one here to get it. I’ve had great role models to guide my path and strike that balance between teaching and research. I’ve benefitted from excellent mentorship and leadership throughout my time here.” 

What she’s gained, Benz has also given back. She’s written successful grants, including earlier this year as the principal investigator on USD’s renewal of its Beckman Scholars Program that will provide year-round funding for five USD student researchers. Benz continues to mentor post-doc fellows, particularly strengthening a pipeline for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) academic positions as they transition from post-doc to assistant professor roles. 

Put it all together — the teaching, the research, work with students and support for the next generation of STEM professors — and it’s no wonder why Benz received the Dreyfus Award. She’s the embodiment of a teacher-scholar who is making a complete difference.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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