The 2020–21 Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching, Caltech’s highest teaching prize, has been awarded to Rob Phillips, the Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics, Biology, and Physics in the divisions of Engineering and Applied Science and Biology and Biological Engineering.
“Put simply, Rob is one of the most extraordinary teachers that I have ever encountered,” said one individual in a letter nominating Phillips for the honor. “Like every other class that I have seen Rob teach, [Bi1X] took a completely unique approach, different (again!) from anything I have experienced in 20 years of teaching (and 20 years of taking courses before that).”
Phillips was trained as a physicist, and held a professorship in engineering at Brown University before he came to Caltech in 2000. At Caltech, he began to specialize in the physics of living systems, and received a joint appointment as professor of applied physics and biology in 2011 before he was named Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics, Biology, and Physics in 2012.
His work focuses on the physical biology of the cell, specifically the importance of precise quantitative analyses in explaining the behavior of biological systems ranging from viral epidemics to the regulation of gene expression. His many honors include a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016, numerous distinguished lectureships, and the Book of the Year award from the Society of Biologists for Physical Biology of the Cell, a book that grew directly from his Caltech course of the same name.
“Being a professor at Caltech has been the signature privilege of my professional life,” says Phillips. “Though I am deeply honored by this award, I am also totally cognizant of the generations of students that have joined me in my teaching and research adventures and without whom, none of this would have been possible. I have been surrounded by so many brilliant and dedicated young scientists that have joined me in celebrating the sense of wonder that fuels our science.”
In 2014, Phillips collaborated with then-Professor of Geobiology Victoria Orphan (now James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology and Alan V.C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair and director of the Center for Environmental Microbial Interactions) to develop an undergraduate course on evolutionary biology. The course emphasized hands-on learning, including field trips to the La Brea Tar Pits and the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College, and culminating in a week-long trip to the Galápagos Islands.
“My view is that the most important point is to get students to plug into the idea of looking at nature and wondering, ‘Why is that like that? How could science attack that question?’ It’s not so much a course about learning what is,” said Phillips in reference to the evolutionary biology class. “It’s a course about saying, ‘I wonder ….'”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Phillips developed two new courses: “The Great Human Experiment by the Numbers,” in which students performed order-of-magnitude estimates to understand the human impact on the planet; and “Physical Biology of Viruses,” aimed at helping students understand the biophysics of how viruses work and how to model viral spread during the pandemic.
One nomination letter said: “Through his remarkable ability to make scientific discovery feel special—on a personal level—Rob has touched the lives of countless science trainees around the world. He is a deep thinker, an adventurous and extremely proficient undertaker of new educational endeavors, and a fantastic mentor and scientific resource to students and colleagues. To Rob, the adventure of doing science is inherently connected with teaching science.”
The Feynman Prize was established in 1993 to annually honor a professor who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching. It has been endowed through the generosity of Ione and Robert E. Paradise and an anonymous local couple.
Some of the most recent winners of the prize include Melany Hunt, Dotty and Dick Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Ali Hajimiri, Bren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering; Harry Gray, Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry; Brian Stoltz, professor of chemistry; and Ellen Rothenberg, Distinguished Professor of Biology.
Nominations for next year’s Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching will be solicited in the fall. Further information about the prize and a full list of past recipients can be found on the Provost’s Office website.