A significant connection: Pam Doolittle wins J. Calvin Giddings Award for Excellence in Education

Dr. Pam Doolittle

Dr. Pamela Doolittle was recently named the recipient of the J. Calvin Giddings Award for Excellence in Education. The award recognizes individuals who enhance “the personal and professional development of students in the study of analytical chemistry by authorship, design, and implementation of successful new approaches to teaching analytical chemistry, stimulation through teaching or research mentorship, innovative experiments, and more.”

Pam is a science education innovator and has made notable contributions to the profession, as evidenced by the curricular materials she’s published with the Open Education Resource (OER) the Analytical Sciences Digital Library (ASDL–see asdlib.org), articles she’s published in scientific journals, textbook contributions, and the many invited talks and posters she’s presented at national conferences. Besides providing her own contributions to the publication, she also regularly serves as a reviewer for the Journal of Chemical Education.

Student Alexander Kress explains the careful preparation of electrodes important to the research project he’s engaged in for Chemistry 116.
Doolittle (right) filming prelab videos with Badger Chemistry alum Dr. Ranga Rajan (Weisshaar), for students in the lab.

In 2011, Pam was recruited by Professor Tom Wenzel from Bates College to participate in the NSF Funded ASDL project. The project promotes the use of active learning materials in the analytical chemistry curriculum by warehousing course materials–lab activities as well as in-class active learning materials–and instructors’ notes for their implementation. The project also provided training opportunities for instructors to learn how to implement materials from the site, as well as assistance in effectively reimagining their materials in an active learning classroom environment. Besides sharing her materials on the site, Pam has served as a workshop facilitator for the project since 2011. She has organized and facilitated two regional workshops for the project, one of them here at UW Madison in the Fall of 2018. She traveled to the home institutions of faculty participants to observe their lab or classroom teaching practices, met with graduate students and department faculty, and offered seminars describing her work at UW-Madison. Pam currently serves as the Associate Editor for the Quantitative Analysis content of the ASDL project.

Pam’s community service is also notable. In 2000, Pam was invited to participate in a meeting with Governor Tommy Thompson to explore the possibility of rebooting a science fair network that could connect to the International Science and Engineering Fair, sponsored by Intel Corporation. During that meeting, a core group of volunteers, including Pam, came together to form a 501c3 nonprofit corporation, the Wisconsin Science Education Foundation. WiSEF became the sponsoring entity of the Badger State Science and Engineering Fair. Pam organized the first fair, which was held at UW-Madison in 2002. Pam served in several WiSEF board positions from 2002 to 2010, including as President of WiSEF from 2003 to 2008. Pam was instrumental in securing grants and donations to build the business and financial infrastructure to sustain the BSSEF for generations to come. Pam’s work in securing the fair earned her two service letter recognition awards from Governor Scott McCallum (2003) and Governor Jim Doyle (2005).

One lesson important in chemistry is that learning the material can be challenging, and students can feel overwhelmed and even fearful. Learning involves risk. In her work as Analytical Lab Director at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Chemistry and in her personal life, Dr. Pam Doolittle knows this all too well. “Risk is hard,” explains Doolittle when describing how the concept of risk can foster creativity, independence, and critical thinking. “Students will make mistakes and must offer explanations and solutions in the absence of a known answer.” Because of this, Doolittle has worked the idea of risk into the design of analytical chemistry courses and has mentored students in the elements of risk, knowing that students will need to explore mistakes with curiosity when sometimes an experiment doesn’t go as planned. That connection to risk can be just the lesson a student needs for understanding in the exploration and study of analytical chemistry. And it is this connection that has pulled Doolittle back to the lab after a heartbreaking loss in her personal life.

Cassy graduated as a double major in Music and Psychology from UW-Milwaukee in 2017. Cassy loved musicals and here the Doolittles are about to enjoy Hamilton at the Overture Center, in 2017.
Cassy Doolittle on a climbing excursion in Squamish, BC, in Summer 2022.

In late 2022, Doolittle’s daughter Cassy was a graduate student at the University of Las Vegas, working towards a Ph.D. in the field of neuroscience. During the holiday break, Cassy traveled to Argentina for a rock climbing expedition. The trip was marked with travel difficulties, but Cassy was determined to press on. On the mountain, a turn in the weather including high winds and freezing rain prompted Cassy to send out a distress call. After two excruciating days of waiting for updates, the family received the news that their daughter had perished.

In what could be called serendipity, the award’s namesake, J. Calvin Giddings, was an avid rock climber and outdoorsman with an impressive record of first summits and near summits. Giddings also authored the book Demon River Apurimac: The First Navigation of Upper Amazon Canyons which provides a first-person account of the author’s 1970s kayaking adventure through the Apurimac River gorge, from near its source above 4000 m to the jungle far below. “He was curious and adventurous,” Doolittle exclaims, “Which resonates with our own family dynamic and the life lessons my husband and I sought to teach our children as they grew up.” 

Upon learning she received the honor of the award, Doolittle was inspired back to the lab and classroom, to continue her work in inspiring enthusiasm and creativity in learning chemistry and the science of chemical measurements.

Doolittle earned her BS in Chemistry and Secondary Education from Lakeland College and her Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from UW–Madison under the direction of her mentor and friend, R. Claude Woods. She joined the UW–Madison Department of Chemistry in 1999 as an assistant faculty associate, becoming a faculty associate in 2012 and earning the Distinguished Faculty Associate title in 2020.  Professor Jim Taylor, the namesake for the department’s Taylor Teaching Award, earned the Giddings Award in 2002.

Doolittle will receive the J. Calvin Giddings honor which includes a cash award and a plaque at a ceremony held by the American Chemical Society’s Division of Analytical Chemistry in the fall of this year.