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Top faculty award given to late Loyola chemistry professor Kurt Birdwhistell

Loyola press release - January 13, 2015

Those who knew Kurt Birdwhistell, Ph.D., the late Loyola University New Orleans Augustus Elmer, Jr., Distinguished Professor in Chemistry, say that he was passionate about his profession, the university and his students.

Birdwhistell, who died of adrenal cancer in November 2014, was named the recipient of the 2014 Dux Academicus award - the university's top faculty award - for having achieved and sustained the highest levels of excellence as a scholar, educator, and contributor to community and professional service. His wife, Teresa Birdwhistell, Ph.D., accepted the award on her husband's behalf at the President's Convocation for Faculty and Staff on Jan. 9.

Birdwhistell is remembered as an outstanding teacher, mentor, and colleague. All of his contributions benefited faculty, staff and students by making Loyola a great place to learn and work.

“It does not take long to realize Dr. Birdwhistell is an incredibly knowledgeable, coherent, and just person. When he lectures, it is clear that he is extremely passionate, both about his field of study and about imparting his expertise to his students; through his attitude, his passion for chemistry is transferred to his pupils,” said one of his students in an award nomination letter that Birdwhistell got to read before he passed away.

After earning his doctorate in inorganic/organometallic chemistry, Birdwhistell joined the Loyola staff in 1988. Despite a heavy course load in lab-intensive courses, he quickly became active in the chemistry department, as well as the American Chemical Society, and very popular among students. Shortly after achieving tenure, he was appointed chair of the department and began a thorough curriculum overhaul to make it not only meet the rigorous standards of the American Chemical Society, but also to ensure that it was innovative, engaging and accessible to all students. He worked to consistently update the labs to ensure that students were trained in the use of modern instrumentation. He also took over the first-year seminar series for chemistry majors, adding into the program a new service-learning component which provided the opportunity for students to give chemistry demonstrations at local elementary schools. Birdwhistell also set a precedent that all tenured faculty in his department would observe classes offered by non-tenured members to offer their assessments. These reviews would prove to be crucial to the development of his colleagues.

Meanwhile, he continued his more than 20 years of research in the area of catalysis, spending the last 10 years focusing his research on green chemistry, which strives to do chemistry in an environmentally safe and sustainable manner. Birdwhistell published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Organometallics, Journal of Chemical Education, and Journal of Organometallic Chemistry, among others.

The Augustus Elmer, Jr., Distinguished Professorship in Chemistry is the first of a series of five professorships established by Gus and Anne Elmer, who sought to support Loyola's Jesuit mission in education and honor the many Elmer and Morvant family members who have attended Loyola. The purpose of establishing these professorships is to pursue excellence in teaching and research in chemistry.

“Kurt was a very special person who loved spending time with students, helping them to learn about chemistry. He was particularly good in the laboratory where he introduced upper-level chemistry majors to the mysteries and wonders of organometallic synthesis and characterization,” said Lynn Vogel Koplitz, Ph.D., chair and professor of chemistry.

“He kept in touch with his former research students, many of whom attended his memorial ceremony in the St. Charles Room last December. Kurt was a great colleague and a true academic leader,” Koplitz added.

Birdwhistell's family has established the Birdwhistell Endowment in his memory.