Six faculty members named University Scholars


Quentin Shaw

Professor Martin Burton poses with his molecular making machine at the Roger Adams Laboratory.

By Jiejie Wang , Staff Writer

Six faculty members were named 2017 University Scholars for their excellent performances in teaching, scholarship and service.

The recipients are Martin Burke, Cara Finnegan, Andrew Leakey, Amy Ando, Hedda Meadan-Kaplansky and Saurabh Sinha.

“The University Scholars Award recognizes the very best of our tenured scholars and teachers who excel both in research and in the classroom,” said Barbara Wilson, executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs, in an email.

Wilson said it is the only award that is given out at the system level, and it comes with a three-year funding of $15,000 per year to support the faculty members’ work.

Each year, there are six faculty members awarded at Urbana-Champaign, seven awarded at Chicago and one awarded at Springfield.

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    Burke, professor of chemistry and interim associate dean of research for the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, said it’s a greatly appreciated honor to be recognized.

    “This unrestricted funding is very helpful for a research lab,” Burke said. “We can do new projects that no one else agreed to fund yet.”

    Burke pioneered a new field of medicine called molecular prosthetic, which has the potential ability to cure those diseases caused by missing protein functions.

    “We want to create replacement molecules that can replace the function of the missing protein,” Burke said. “Now we can say at least in animals, we’ve established the concept, and so now we need to work very hard to try to get it to be translated right to patients.”

    Burke and his team members developed a Lego-like strategy to make molecules.

    They even built a molecular-making machine that can do it automatically, which is the only one in the world.

    Burke has served at the University for 12 years and has about 20 students in his group now.

    He said molecular prosthetics is the first thing he started on, and he can probably continue to work on it for the rest of his career.

    “When I started talking about doing this kind of research, many places were not welcoming because it’s a very high-risk type of research,” Burke said. “But, Illinois took a chance, and they offered me a job as an assistant professor, and I think that’s something very special about Illinois.”

    Finnegan, professor and associate head of the Department of Communication, said she loves that the University Scholars Award honors faculty work in all aspects, including research, teaching, service to the University and their field, and bringing ideas from your work into the public, in an email.

    Finnegan published two books on different aspects of the history of photography.

    “During the Obama presidency, I got really interested in how the Obama White House was using social media to circulate photographs of the president,” Finnegan said. “That led me to start a third book project that I’m finishing now that studies how U.S. presidents have participated in photography from its invention in 1839 until now.”

    Finnegan said she plans to spend the funding on visiting archives and gathering the final materials for the book she is currently finishing, and also to start the archival work on her next book project.

    Finnegan said she hopes part of what the University Scholar recognition reflects is the University’s continued appreciation for and investment in the kind of work humanities scholars like her do to understand both historical practices and events as well as contemporary ones.

    The faculty members were honored at a campus reception on Jan. 31, hosted by Wilson and Robert Jones, chancellor of the University.

    Andreas Cangellaris, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, also attended the event.

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