2018 Distinguished Teaching Award

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Graduate student Devon Widmer (Schwartz group) has been selected for the 2018 Distinguished Teaching Award for Teaching Assistants.

Widmer is one of five awardees selected from a large field of extraordinary nominees. She will be recognized at the annual “Andrea L. Rich Night to Honor Teaching” dinner in the Fall 2018 quarter. Awardees receive a monetary award and those who advance to candidacy in the Fall Quarter receive a $20,000 Dissertation Year Fellowship Award from the UCLA Graduate Division.

Currently, Widmer is working on a laboratory simulation/gaming application to help general chemistry students visualize and interact with the complex concepts they learn about in class. While nothing can replace a traditional laboratory experience, Widmer hopes that adding gaming to students’ learning repertoire will provide a fun and stress free environment to interact with science.

Widmer graduated summa cum laude from Denison University in 2012 as part of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society with a bachelor of science in chemistry and a bachelor of arts in English literature. She joined the group of UCLA physical chemistry professor Dr. Benjamin Schwartz that summer.  

For her Ph.D. dissertation in computational chemistry, Widmer implemented mixed quantum/classical (MQC) molecular dynamics (MD) simulations of simple molecules in solution, though her most challenging grad school project is her energetic two-year-old daughter, Mei.

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In her office at UCLA, Widmer with her two-year-old daughter Mei.

While teaching UCLA’s Chem 113A (Quantum Chemistry) course, Widmer orchestrated a collaborative project with WikiEd, an organization that encourages students to add to the knowledge on Wikipedia by expanding existing articles or even authoring new articles. For the project, she designed a ten-week plan, led the students through WikiEd training, taught them research techniques and citation guidelines, and helped each student make a tangible contribution to the scientific knowledge on Wikipedia.

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A screen shot from one of Widmer’s math tutorial videos.

A science writer, Widmer has a science blog “ScientistsArePeopleToo.com” which is dedicated to bringing her love of science to a general audience. “Not everyone wants to become a theoretical chemist, but everyone can be a scientist by approaching the world around them with an open mind and a sense of wonder” she said.

Students entering general chemistry courses often have widely varied mathematical backgrounds. To help bridge this mathematical gap, Widmer created several math tutorial videos including

Introduction to Exponential and Logarithmic Functions, Introduction to Derivatives, and 

Introduction to Integrals.


“As someone who loves science, one of the greatest feelings in the world is helping someone overcome their insecurities about science and discover new passions for the world around them” said Widmer (pictured at right in the lab). “During my graduate school career, I have sought out programs that encourage middle and high school students from under-resourced communities to become excited about science. Through one such program, Letters to a Pre-Scientist, I exchange letters with middle school students to tell them about my experiences as a scientist, encourage them to try age-appropriate science experiments, and answer science questions”.

Widmer has also written several science articles. “My aim in writing science articles is always to make the subject, no matter how complex, fun and approachable” she said. Her on-line science articles include Quantum Cat’s Tour of the Wonderfully Weird World of Quantum Mechanics, and The Dizzying Physics Behind Figure Skating Spins and Office Chair Shenanigans.

To learn more about Widmer’s projects, visit her website.

The goal of the UCLA Academic Senate Teaching Award is to increase awareness of UCLA’s leadership in teaching and public service by honoring individuals who bring respect and admiration to the scholarship of teaching. By recognizing teachers for their achievements, the award gives parents, donors and others insight to what makes UCLA “a beacon of excellence in higher education.” These awards are an effective way to boost morale on campus and provide role models for faculty and students.

Widmer joins several other former UCLA Chemistry & Biochemistry graduate students who have received the honor. Previous winners include:

2017 – Matthew Fontana – after graduating in the summer of 2018, Matt will start a position as Chemistry Instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College in his hometown”   

2015 – Zhao Li – now the Libby Teacher Scholar at the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry conducting research with Prof. Yung-Ya Lin

2014 – Rees Garmann – now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard conducting research with Vinothan Manoharan

2007 – Sadaf Sehati – now a chemistry professor at Pierce College

2004 – Jerome-Ieronymos Zoidais – now a researcher in the Biotechnology Division of the Biomedical Research Foundation, Academy of Athens (BRFAA)

2000 – Dean Tantillo – now a chemistry professor at UC Davis

1999 – David Klein – now an author and senior chemistry lecturer at Johns Hopkins University

1995 – Nate Brandstater – now president of Kettering College

1978 – Rosemarie Szostak – now a senior analyst at Nerac

1976 – Hsi-Chao Chow 

1975 – Wayne Evans

Photos by Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. Instructional video and lab photos courtesy of Devon Widmer.