Joan McDowd, Wai-Yim Ching Receive UM System President’s Awards

The University of Missouri System presented two University of Missouri-Kansas City professors with President’s Awards on Friday, April 14.

Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs Bob Schwartz and Interim Chief of Staff David Russell awarded Joan McDowd, professor of psychology, with the President’s Award for Community Engagement; and UMKC Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Barbara Bichelmeyer awarded Wai-Yim Ching, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Physics, with the President’s Award for Sustained Career Excellence.

Joan McDowd, College of Arts and Sciences

Russell and Schwartz, accompanied by UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton and Bichelmeyer, surprised McDowd while she enjoyed lunch with colleagues. The award, which includes a $5,000 prize, recognizes faculty who are involved in exemplary community engagement activities such as volunteerism, service-learning, educational programming and outreach.

McDowd joined the UMKC Department of Psychology as a faculty member in 2011, following six years as the associate director for research at the Landon Center for Aging at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Prior to her work at UMKC, she had not been involved in community-based work.

“When I came to UMKC, two experiences pushed me toward greater community involvement through the university,” McDowd wrote in her nominee statement. “However, I was drawn in by the magnitude of the need, the genuineness of my community partners and the potential for UMKC to have an impact.”

One of her first contributions was establishing the SilverRoo Research Program. In the SilverRoo Lab, McDowd and her students conduct research on the ways that aging impacts attention, memory and decision-making. Using volunteer alumni as test subjects, the project provides much-needed data for her research and provides a connection with the community.

“Joan’s community engagement goes far beyond her laboratory research,” said Jennifer Lundgren, chair of the UMKC Department of Psychology. “She has also spent five years developing relationship with three community organizations that allow her to share her expertise and talents in ways that strengthen the organizations and highlight UMKC’s desire to be a valuable community partner.”

Those three organizations include: the American Stroke Foundation where McDowd served as interim executive director, without pay, while the organization worked to achieve financial stability; the Chestnut Avenue Family Resource Center where McDowd coordinated volunteer efforts of UMKC students, faculty and staff to restore the resource center which was originally a drug house in need of significant repair; and the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren project where McDowd partnered with Palestine Missionary Baptist Church to initiate a support group for grandparents raising their grandchildren in the Kansas City area.

McDowd credits the willingness of UMKC students to get involved in community engagement and seeks opportunities for citizens to come into her classroom to share their insights and perspectives on the needs of the community.

Beyond helping the community, students gain valuable experience in working with non-profits.

“I have benefited in many ways from my experiences working with Dr. McDowd at the American Stroke Foundation and I have learned a lot about the importance of community engagement,” doctoral student Mark Poirier wrote. “Two key principles that I have come away with are that, 1) the value of knowledge is only truly realized when it has been transmitted and applied for the public good and 2) that knowledge can flow not only from the university to the community, but also from the community to the university.”

“In this way classroom ‘walls’ are broken down, ideas are challenged and knowledge from the classroom and the community can be applied to solve problems,” McDowd wrote.

Wai-Yim Ching, College of Arts and Sciences

Bichelmeyer, accompanied by Associate Teaching Professor Robert Riggs, surprised Ching in front of his colleagues at a physics faculty meeting. The award, which includes a $5,000 prize, recognizes faculty for distinguished, career-long sustained excellence in scholarship, research or creativity, for a period of 15 or more years.

Ching began teaching at UMKC as an assistant professor of physics in 1978. He quickly rose to a tenured associate professor in 1981 and a full professor in 1984. In 1988, he was named to his current role as a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Physics.

“Professor Ching has served of the university and the physics department 38 years and has truly sustained excellence as a researcher and teacher,” nominators Fred Leibsle and Robert Riggs, both from the department of physics, wrote. “Dr. Ching has published refereed publications that are well-received within the scientific community and have been published in top journals in his field. Forty of those publications have been within the last five years, indicating that Dr. Ching is not slowing down.”

Ching’s research and publications cover diverse disciplines, such as condensed matter physics, ceramics and glasses, chemistry, biology, material science, engineering, medical science, geophysics and earth science. He was one of the most cited physicists in the world from 1981 to 1997, with more 2,000 citations of 171 papers. To date, his published research has been cited more than 16,400 times.

“Wai-Yim is almost consumed by physics research, typically working seven days a week. In those rare years when he takes a family vacation, he spends much of his time expanding his knowledge of the literature, while continuing to lead his research group remotely,” wrote Associate Dean Michael Kruger.

With just 10 professors, the UMKC Department of Physics and Astronomy has obtained more than $2.7 million in external funding, well above national averages. Colleagues credit Ching for much of that success.

“The primary force behind the tremendous improvements in research productivity was Wai-Yim, who through his leadership, mentoring and most importantly, exceedingly good example, helped the department make great strides towards enhanced research,” Kruger said.

Since 1978, Ching has brought in nearly $8 million in external support and has been funded by several agencies including the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Defense.

“Few physicists, and very few theorists, obtain this amount of money, a clear indication that funding agencies think very highly of Wai-Yim and his research,” Kruger said. “This national recognition is echoed in other areas, such as Wai-Yim’s having published more than 410 refereed publications, and his election as a fellow of the American Physical Society.”

The UM System President’s Awards are presented annually to faculty members across the four campuses of the UM System who have made exceptional contributions in advancing the mission of the university. McDowd and Ching will be formally recognized by UM System President Mun Y. Choi during an awards celebration in June.

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