Published: April 1, 2021

EBIO professor noted as a superb teacher and speaker, as well as a paradigm-shifting researcher for her work with plant physiology in extreme conditions

Biologist Barbara Demmig-Adams has won the 2021 Hazel Barnes Prize, the most distinguished award a faculty member can receive from the University of Colorado Boulder.

The Hazel Barnes Prize, a tradition since 1992, annually recognizes one CU Boulder faculty member who exemplifies the enriching interrelationship between teaching and research, and whose work has a significant effect on students, faculty, colleagues and the university. 

Noted in nomination materials as a superb teacher and speaker, Demmig-Adams is a College of Arts and Sciences’ professor of distinction in ecology and evolutionary biology (EBIO). Her research focus is plant physiological ecology—broadly probing the question of how plants survive and thrive in their natural environment, including extreme conditions.

Barbara Demmig-Adams

At the top of the page: Former undergraduate researcher Elizabeth Lombardi talks with Professor Barbara Demmig-Adams in the greenhouse on the roof of the Ramaley building at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado). Above: Barbara Demmig-Adams


In particular, Demmig-Adams discovered that plants respond to excess sunlight by dissipating the excess energy harmlessly as heat, thereby preventing damage and/or metabolic disruption the plants would otherwise suffer. 

“Thanks to Barbara’s insights over the course of her distinguished career, we not only know a lot more about plants, we think differently about plants, their flexibility, and their relationships with their growth environments,” said Barry Logan, the first person to earn a PhD under her mentorship and now a professor and chair of biology at Bowdoin College.

“Our faculty continuously impact society in profound ways, contributing through their research and by inspiring students, making a chain of beneficial connections for individuals and communities through teaching and science,” said CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano. “Barbara Demmig-Adams is among them, addressing solutions to some of our greatest challenges. She is deeply deserving of this prize.”

She is a model and master teacher and an inspiration to all of us who believe that every student has a right to a rich educational experience."

Pieter Johnson, also a professor of distinction in EBIO, concurred, noting that Demmig-Adams is a research pioneer who “continues to make paradigm-shifting contributions to the understanding of photosynthesis and plant antioxidants.”

Demmig-Adams and her students apply these hard-earned insights to questions about food security under climate change, renewable energy, nutrition and public health, Johnson said, adding that she discusses research topics in her classroom by illuminating how fundamental discoveries can ultimately yield solutions to big contemporary challenges. 

In their nomination letters, colleagues at CU Boulder and elsewhere noted that Demmig-Adams is a prolific and well-regarded researcher, having published more than 170 peer-reviewed papers that have been cited nearly 20,000 times. 

She is noted for integrating teaching and research. More than 65% of her publications include graduate students as co-authors, and nearly 30% include undergraduate or high-school student co-authors. 

Rebecca Safran, CU Boulder associate professor of EBIO, praised Demmig-Adams for serving students with “exceptional understanding, dignity and respect.” 

“She is a model and master teacher and an inspiration to all of us who believe that every student has a right to a rich educational experience,” Safran said, noting Demmig-Adams’ “steadfast and tremendous dedication to a socially just and equitable style of teaching.” 

For example, Safran noted that Demmig-Adams has worked with CU Boulder Disability Services to ensure universal accessibility of course materials to biology students. 

For her part, Demmig-Adams emphasized the joy she experiences while working with students: “I feel richly rewarded by seeing students in my classes contribute to the development of new research avenues when I let them choose topics they are passionate about, to work on with a timeline and in a format that allows everyone to shine.”

Demmig-Adams earned a PhD in botany from the University of Würzburg, Germany, in 1984 and joined the CU Boulder faculty in 1989. She has been locally, nationally and internationally recognized: she has won the CU Boulder Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in STEM Education, has been named a Web of Science Highly Cited Researcher and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences of Germany, Austria and Switzerland.