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Service Award recognizes team play, recipient says

Davor Balzor

Davor Balzor recieved DU's Faculty Service Award at Convocation in October.

University of Denver Physics and Astronomy Chair Davor Balzar took the stage by himself to accept his Faculty Service Award at October’s Convocation ceremony, but Balzar says in reality it was his entire department being recognized.

Balzar says the outlook for his department wasn’t always so bright. He came to DU in 2001, eager to get back to working in the classroom after working in research at the University of Colorado and at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder.

But following the sudden death of then-chair Tom Stephen in 2004, the department endured turbulent times as most of the faculty was lost to retirement or other positions. At times, Balzar says, it was unclear whether the department would continue as an independent entity or if it would only offer service courses for natural science and engineering programs. Balzar became the chair of the department in 2006.

It was thanks to the support from the chancellor, provost, deans and other departments in the natural sciences and engineering that the long journey back began — the department attracted eight new professors, doubled external funding and added new opportunities for the growing community of students, whose number more than tripled to about 45 undergraduate and 23 graduate students today.

“This is an award for service, and as such, perhaps unlike all the other awards that are given, it’s really not given to an individual,” Balzar says. “I really take it to be an award for the whole department.”

Balzar says the award recognizes the dedication of many who struggled through the difficult times, including Professors Herschel Neumann, Bob Stencel, research Professors Bob Amme and Ronald Blatherwick, lab manager Peter Halam, the new professors who took a chance on a struggling department, and assistant to the chair Barb Stephen, Tom Stephen’s widow.

Provost Gregg Kvistad saluted Balzar’s leadership and dedication during the difficult times.

“We see it in Davor Balzar, whose work rebuilding physics and astronomy rescued the department from a tragic confluence of events that almost transformed it into a teaching service unit for our other natural science programs,” Kvistad said at Convocation Oct. 26. “If it had not been for Davor’s vision, dogged determination, patience and extraordinary good relations with his colleagues at all levels, from the chancellor to undergraduate students, the department of physics and astronomy would not be the thriving program that it is today.”

And while Balzar lays much of the credit on his colleagues, it was that same team that lent its voice to his nomination, Kvistad said. Even undergraduate students spoke up in his support.

“That is a rare coalition that almost never forms about any issue or person in academe,” Kvistad said. “Davor’s vision, leadership and personal commitment inspired all of them, they wrote, and they said they were very lucky to be part of this program and would like to honor him for his dedication and devotion.”

Looking ahead, Balzar says he’s eager to help as the department hones its focus to create new research opportunities for students and professors in nanotechnology and condensed matter physics, as well as astronomy. The department’s strength, he says, is its students and the collaborative research they engage in with their professors. As the department evolves, he says he’s eager to see students and researchers becoming increasingly involved in interdisciplinary projects with other departments across campus.

The department’s continued success has never been a one-person accomplishment, instead it is a testament to everyone involved, Balzar says.

“This is now a thriving department,” he says. “If it was only me, it wouldn’t be. We’d be talking about a different outcome altogether.”


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