Best & Brightests  
 



UW AWARDS 2008 HOMEPAGE

UWEEK.ORG HOMEPAGE

DISTINGUISHED TEACHING AWARD
Ben Kerr, Biology
Gowri Shankar, Business Administration
Jaime Olavarria, Psychology
Jamie Walker, Ceramics
Julia Parrish, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences / Biology
Rebecca Aanerud, Women Studies
Richard Knuth, Education Administration

EXCELLENCE IN TEACHING AWARD
Fernanda Oyarzun & Chris Himes , Biology
Rachel Goldberg, English

DISTINGUISHED LIBRARIAN AWARD
Theresa Mudrock, UW Libraries

DISTINGUISHED STAFF AWARD
Hendrik Simons, Nuclear Physics Laboratory
Mona Pitre-Collins, Undergraduate Scholarship Office
Philip Mote, Climate Impacts Group
Robin Bennett, Medical Genetics
Sue Park, Facilities Services

DISTINGUISHED CONTRIBUTIONS TO LIFELONG LEARNING AWARD
John Schaufelberger, Construction Management

OUTSTANDING PUBLIC SERVICE AWARD
Nancy Amidei, Social Work

JAMES D. CLOWES AWARD FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING COMMUNITIES
Lance Bennett, Political Science / Communication

S. STERLING MUNRO PUBLIC SERVICE TEACHING AWARD
Denise Wilson, Electrical Engineering

DAVID B. THORUD LEADERSHIP AWARD
Judy Mahoney, College of Engineering
Kathleen Woodward, Simpson Center for the Humanities

MARSHA L. LANDOLT DISTINGUISHED GRADUATE MENTOR AWARD
Tom Quinn, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences

ALUMNUS SUMMA LAUDE DIGNATA
Beverly Cleary, Children's Author

ALUMNI ASSOCIATION DISTINGUISHED SERVICE AWARD
Robb Weller, Television Producer and Host

PRESIDENT'S MEDAL
June Shujun Peng and Royce Anderson

"They put me in front of students and I discovered I was able to turn the situation into something fun for me, and entertaining. I get a little bit transformed."


Jaime Olavarria


As a youth in Chile, Jaime Olavarria pondered the big questions: Why are humans different from animals? Why do we have self-awareness? How do our brains enable us to do the things we do? Now an associate professor of psychology, Olavarria remains no less curious about our role in the world. And though he's an active researcher, he has also become an innovative and effective teacher.

"They put me in front of students and I discovered I was able to turn the situation into something fun for me, and entertaining," he said, later adding, "I get a little bit transformed."

His students seem transformed, too. Robyn Laing, after taking three courses from Olavarria, wrote in her supporting letter for the award that under his guidance "I have learned more about reading and writing scientific papers and designing experiments than I have in any course that I have taken...I believe that he stands out as a truly excellent professor in both his ability to teach and in the amount of effort he puts into each of his students, both in the classroom and the lab."

Other letters also describe a man who flourishes in the creativity of the classroom. "Jaime consistently rates among the top performers both in terms of the amount of teaching he does, and in the high rating he receives from students," wrote Sean O'Donnell, a fellow associate professor in psychology.

Olavarria was raised the second-youngest of six siblings in the small Chilean city of Puerto Montt. His father taught elementary school and his mother owned a small business. His parents were open to any future for their children, so long as it included getting an education. "They expected us to excel -- simply because it was our duty," he said.

He graduated from the University of Chile's School of Medicine in 1974, but still wanted to study logic and better understand the human brain. This led him to earn a doctorate in neurobiology from the University of California, Berkeley. Back then, teaching was not Olavarria's top priority.

But an associate recommended he apply at the UW, and Olavarria knew that teaching would be a large part of the job. He was hired as an assistant professor of psychology in 1990, and was made an associate professor in 1996. Teaching at the UW, he said, "opened up a new vein in me."

Meanwhile, he continues an active research career, examining the development of organized neural circuits, or topographical maps, in the visual cortex. He said he's shown "that normal map development required retinal input during an early, brief and well-defined critical period."

Olavarria illustrated with a metaphor, as he often does in class. This critical time in neural formation is like an architect drawing up plans for a house. Once the architect finishes the plan, the project can proceed normally even if the architect leaves the project or dies -- just as this crucial stage of retinal influences sets the stage for normal development despite what comes before and after. He said his goal is to better understand the processes that regulate the timing and duration of this critical stage.

But it's his enthusiasm for teaching and readiness to work in new directions that helped him earn the teaching honor on his third nomination (others were in 2001 and 2006).

"Dr. Olavarria is committed to expanding opportunities for minority and disadvantaged students," wrote Steven Buck, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology. This includes participation in the Minority Research Apprentice Program for high school students and the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR-UP), in which he will teach for the fifth year this summer.

Olavarria also taught a one-month Discovery Seminar for incoming freshmen on "Biopsychology and the Brain." And this summer he will lead an Exploration Seminar back to Chile, where he and students will study the country's mental health care. "It's an exploration for me, too," he said.

Teaching also remains an exploration for him. Olavarria still asks the big questions -- including even "Are teachers necessary?" But with teachers of his quality and drive, the answer to that seems clear.