UNC Asheville Chemistry Professor Bert Holmes Wins Two Awards - For Research and for Teaching

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Bert Holmes

Bert Holmes, the Carson Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UNC Asheville, already has a few awards to his name, like the American Chemical Society Award for Undergraduate Researchers and the Catalyst Award for the teaching of chemistry. Now he’s adding two more – the 2018 Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) Fellows Award and the 2018 Board of Governors Excellence in Teaching Award for UNC Asheville – to his list of accolades. But it’s not the framed awards on his walls that Holmes takes the most pride in.

“These awards honor the achievement I’m most proud of, and that’s the work my students have done,” Holmes said.

The CUR Fellows Award is a national honor, bestowed by CUR every two years to two individuals who have developed internationally respected research programs involving undergraduate students. Each CUR Fellow’s institution is also awarded a Brian Andreen Student Research Fellowship that goes to support the awardee’s undergraduate research colleagues.

And each year, the UNC Board of Governors selects a faculty member from each UNC campus to receive the Exellence in Teaching Award; Holmes was nominated for the award by a committee of his colleagues.

Working with students is the key for Holmes, whose teaching career, which includes 20 years at UNC Asheville, has focused heavily on collaborating with students through undergraduate research – the most effective way to teach and learn science, he says.

“You learn science by doing science. And you learn it best when you don’t know the answer. And that’s why undergraduate research is so critical,” Holmes said. “You do it to help students achieve their dreams, their aspirations, their goals in life.”

“I know for a fact that I would not be in the position I am today without the influence of Dr. Holmes,” said Caleb Smith, who graduated from UNC Asheville in 2017 and is starting medical school at UNC Chapel Hill next year. “One of his greatest attributes as a professor is always putting students’ progress and development first. When I was in his research group at UNCA, he worked with my schedule to ensure I could pursue internships and various other opportunities to improve my chances of being accepted into medical school.

“He taught me that science is not just memorization of formulas and tables, but a process that allows you to solve complex problems across various disciplines,” Smith continued. “Most importantly, Dr. Holmes taught me that it does not matter where you are from, whether it's a small, dairy farm in Kansas or a tobacco farming community in Sandy Ridge, N.C., you can be a successful scientist and help make the world a better place.”

Developing and engaging in their own research at the undergraduate level not only prepares students to go after their educational and career goals, Holmes said, it also teaches them invaluable lessons about teamwork and collaboration. Holmes himself regularly collaborates with his students on scientific research.

“In the last 20 years I’ve published 40 papers with 73 undergraduates as co-authors,” Holmes said. “It’s all of those 73 who should feel like they’re all a part of this award.”

Holmes’ teaching style has changed significantly over his career, from furiously writing notes on the chalkboard as fast as he could go, with students copying the notes as fast as they could go, to a much more interactive and engaging method. It was a style inspired partly by the character Professor Kingsfield in the television show Paper Chase.

“So, I adopted what I now know is called the Socratic Method,” Holmes said. “At the time I didn’t, I just called it what Kingsfield did.”

Similarly, the chemistry program at UNC Asheville has evolved over Holmes’ 20 years at the university, growing from five graduates a year to 25 or 30, and requiring a minimum of four semesters of undergraduate research. The department has garnered national attention, with the American Chemical Society requesting a book chapter on the program’s successful evolution. The department also offers the Chemistry Scholars Program, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, which provides scholarships and aims to increase academic success for UNC Asheville’s chemistry majors.

Holmes’ teaching philosophy has also been influenced by his own education at a liberal arts college, and his desire to become a liberal arts educator.

“We have to have scientists who also have the humanist side,” Holmes said. “I realized that liberal arts colleges provided that. That we could teach the ethical side of science.”

Holmes’ credits his students and his colleagues with his accomplishments throughout his career. 

“If you think about it, in your life, it’s the legacy you leave,” he said. “It’s the students that we mentor, that we guide, that we develop into all they can be, that’s the impact that we have. So, yeah, I’m proud of these awards that I’ve gotten, but those just recognize the work my students have done, really.”

For more information about UNC Asheville’s Department of Chemistry, visit chemistry.unca.edu.