UW-Madison chemistry professor elected to lead American Chemical Society

Nov. 29, 2010

by Jill Sakai

University of Wisconsin-Madison chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri has been voted president-elect of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

photo, Shakhashiri.

Shakhashiri

Photo: Jeff Miller

Shakhashiri, the first holder of the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea, will serve on the ACS board of directors for a three-year term, beginning in January as president-elect, as president in 2012 and as immediate-past president in 2013.

The ACS is the largest scientific organization in the world, with more than 160,000 members from academia, government and industry. Its mission is to advance chemistry practice and education and the usefulness of chemistry to society.

He has been a member of ACS for 49 years and will become the third ACS president from UW-Madison. Professor Farrington Daniels — whose namesake building is Shakhashiri's academic home — held the position in 1953, and professor emeritus Charles Casey held it in 2004.

As president, Shakhashiri will have the opportunity to promote his own set of initiatives while serving as the society's public representative and main spokesperson. He has identified several issues he intends to pursue, including green chemistry, climate change, research support, education and science communication.

"I'm interested in science policy, science education and helping transform the educational systems so that what goes on in scientific research not only enlightens us but also can be put to good use in society," Shakhashiri says. "I'm very excited. This is a fabulous opportunity."

He says he hopes to energize fellow scientists to communicate their work to other people. "I have dedicated my professional life to the communication of science," he says. "As scientists, we have an obligation to share our discoveries, and the joy, importance and consequences of these discoveries."

Shakhashiri has devoted his career to promoting chemistry education in multiple forums and for audiences ranging from his undergraduates to families, professional chemists, schoolteachers and government officials. He is best known for his annual Christmas show, "Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri," which he has delivered every year since arriving on campus as an assistant professor in 1970, but has also spearheaded numerous other educational initiatives aimed at students of all ages. He founded the UW System Undergraduate Teaching Improvement Council (now the Office of Professional and Instructional Development) in 1977, the UW-Madison Institute for Chemical Education in 1983, and the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy (WISL) in 2002. He chaired the ACS Division of Chemical Education in 1981 and spent 1984-90 at the National Science Foundation as the assistant director for science and engineering education, where he presided over the rebuilding of NSF's education programs after they had been nearly eliminated in the early 1980s. Through WISL, he has created programs exploring the interfaces between science and the arts, humanities, religion, ethics, politics, the economy and health.

He continues to be an active professor and researcher on campus, teaching students about not only chemistry but also the ins and outs of engaging the public. A fifth book in his set of "Chemical Demonstrations" handbooks for teachers, which has been one of the most popular titles from UW Press since the first volume published in 1983, will be released in February.

Shakhashiri's ACS office will be the latest on a lengthy list of accomplishments throughout his career. But one stands out as having enabled all the others, he says. "It's my proudest professional achievement, being a tenured faculty member at UW-Madison."