2009 - David Peak
Infect with passion. Decode the arcane. Encourage the unencouraged. Research is teaching.
These are among the "effective professor mantras" Utah State University physicist David Peak mutters to himself each day as he walks about campus.
"My colleagues might believe I'm nuts," says Peak, who joined the Physics Department in USU's College of Science in 1994. "But these chants guide my daily interactions with undergraduates."
Peak's actions speak louder than his words, and his efforts were recently recognized, as he is one of 40 professors from across the nation named a 2009 Carnegie Professor of the Year. Peak received his award in a Nov. 19 ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Administered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the awards recognize outstanding professors for their influence on teaching and their outstanding commitment to teaching undergraduate students. Awardees are selected from universities throughout the nation and USU is home to nine of the last 15 Carnegie Professors of the Year in Utah.
"David Peak's teaching genius has helped shape the education of countless undergraduates," says USU President Stan Albrecht. "His efforts in teaching, leadership and philanthropy, both here at USU and nationally, have heightened awareness of the importance of undergraduate research."
Upon his arrival at Utah State some 15 years ago, Peak immediately set to work securing funding to modernize the university's physics labs and initiated efforts to encourage research opportunities for undergraduates. A founder of the national Council on Undergraduate Research, which was started in 1978, the professor insists that research conducted "with and by undergraduates, hands-on, out-of-the-classroom, is arguably the best form of teaching and learning."
"I've mentored many students — both high achievers and those with lower GPAs — and all of them attribute their eventual career successes to their undergraduate research experiences," Peak says.
With wife Terry Peak, an associate professor of social work at USU, the physics professor established an endowment in 2008 to fund annual outstanding undergraduate research awards called "Peak Prizes in Undergraduate Research" to students from each of the university's seven colleges and from a regional campus.
"David Peak provided me with the background and inspiration to create a plan for a centralized undergraduate research program at USU," says Joyce Kinkead, associate vice president for undergraduate research. "He consistently pushes for efforts that provide students access to meaningful, authentic research experiences and enhance the competitiveness of our students for prestigious awards and scholarships."
More than a decade ago, Peak established, what he calls, a "scholarship boot camp" to equip outstanding undergraduates with the skills to pursue national scholarship opportunities. Since 2001, his boot campers have received a Rhodes Scholarship, a Rhodes Finalist citation, a Fulbright Student Scholarship, a Marshall Scholarship, two National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow recognitions and 14 Goldwater Scholarship recognitions.
"Who needs Harvard?" quips Peak. "We can successfully challenge ourselves to live up to our land-grant university mission to provide equitable access and opportunity for all of our students."
And Peak means all. Albrecht notes that Peak has been especially committed to eliminating gender bias in mathematics and science at USU.
USU alum and Rhodes Scholar Lara Anderson, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, says, as an undergraduate, she was particularly grateful for Peak's cheerful viewpoint that gender didn't matter.
"Dr. Peak encouraged me to pursue a career in science and his support meant a great deal to me," she says. "In my own experience in physics research and teaching, I have frequently thought back to the way that he explained complex concepts, the enthusiasm with which he taught and how he mentored and supported his students."
Recent USU graduate Jennifer Albretsen Roth, a Goldwater Scholar who was named USU's 2009 Scholar of the Year and is currently pursuing graduate study at Oregon State University, says Peak's humor and genuine love of teaching created a memorable learning experience.
"My associations with Dr. Peak were an invaluable part of my undergraduate experience," she says. "I always looked forward to attending his modern physics class. He teaches quantum mechanics and general relativity in a way that students understand and enjoy. He is an engaging and effective instructor. I don't think I've laughed harder or learned more in any other class."