Professor Robert H. Davis is known throughout CU Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science as an outstanding leader for his 25-year tenure as the Chemical and Biological Engineering department chair and then the dean of the college.
Davis recently added another accolade to his extensive list of accomplishments: Distinguished Professor, the highest honor bestowed upon tenured faculty across the University of Colorado’s four campuses. Including this year’s honorees, only 136 distinguished professors have been named since the title was first given in 1977.
What is most special to Davis about his latest award is that it recognizes two areas dear to his heart: teaching and research.
“It's a huge honor,” Davis said. “I'm especially pleased the award is based on traditional faculty values of teaching and research, and being recognized by my colleagues.”
Professor Will Medlin, chair of the ChBE department, spoke about the huge impact Davis has made on the department since returning as a faculty member in 2017.
“With his tremendous accomplishments in research, teaching, and leadership it’s difficult to imagine someone more deserving of the title of Distinguished Professor,” Medlin said. “Someone who didn’t know Rob very well might have expected that after he returned, he would take it easy. Instead, he immediately became one of our most creative and engaged faculty members, injecting an amazing level of energy across our research, teaching and service missions.”
Among many other efforts, after his return Davis led new training grants for the ChBE PhD students as well as a new program aimed at fostering collaborations with European institutions, Medlin said. He also led the charge for implementation of intensive, “second-chance” courses to aid in student retention.
Professor Christopher Bowman said that Davis selflessly gave up his own time to help him succeed.
“I owe so much to Rob for any success I have had due to his mentoring, caring and assistance – often at his own personal sacrifice,” Bowman said. “Rob’s devotion and help assisted me and so many others to become better educators, faculty members and people. I have personally seen him show this same devotion not only to faculty but to undergraduate and graduate students over and over again.”
He added that Davis “is a model of what a Distinguished Professor should be.”
“It’s a rare individual who performs at an exceptional level in either research, teaching or service to his/her profession as a professor. Rob excels at all of these – and does it with a care and concern for people that is unmatched.”
Assistant Professor Kayla Sprenger has co-taught Heat and Mass Transfer with Davis for three years and says that working alongside him “has been a pleasure and an honor.”
"Rob is the most organized and detail-oriented person I have ever met. He makes teaching a class of 120 students seamless,” Sprenger said. “He’s a true expert on the subject matter which serves to deepen and strengthen my own knowledge of the course content each time we teach together.”
Wendy Young, now a ChBE teaching professor and associate chair, is a former PhD student of Davis. Young remembers turning in drafts of journal papers to Davis and his returning them completely covered in red ink.
“Rob helped us to be our very best researchers,” she said. “His many suggested improvements – while a little jarring visually – were so helpful and spot on that my group mates and I actually had several journal articles accepted with zero corrections from reviewers!”
A history of success
Davis’s accomplishments go back to receiving the University Medal in 1978 as the outstanding graduate from University of California, Davis in all disciplines. He received his MS and PhD degrees from Stanford University in 1979 and 1982 in chemical engineering. Following a NATO postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge, he joined the CU Boulder faculty in 1982, serving as chair of the ChBE department from 1992-2002 and director of the Colorado RNA Center and co-director of the Colorado Institute for Research in Biotechnology from 1987-2001. He was appointed dean of the college in 2002.
Davis is a world leader in the hydrodynamics of complex fluids, and his research and teaching interests also include biotechnology and membrane separations, with more than 240 peer- reviewed publications in these fields and more than 19,000 citations. A paper he co-authored on the topic of microfiltration in the “Journal of Membrane Science” is one of the most highly cited publications ever published in the journal.
As dean he promoted diversity and implemented student resources such as the BOLD Center, GoldShirt Program, Idea Forge and Earn-Learn and Discovery Learning apprenticeship programs.
Outside of teaching, research and mentoring current students and faculty, Davis also spends his evenings mentoring 12 ChBE alumni. He meets with them individually via Zoom every month to discuss their careers. Sometimes they engage in a book study on “something related to becoming a better person or becoming a better employee.”
As for the future, Davis does not plan to change anything.
“I don't want another administrative job — I don't want to become provost, for example,” he said. “I want to continue to teach and do research. And I really enjoy mentoring individual students. I’m hoping the mentoring will continue beyond the days that I'm a faculty member.”