Nobel Prizes are offered annually in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, which are all common programs of study at colleges and universities, as well as for those who have worked toward peace. Winners of the prizes get lots of benefits along with the world’s most prestigious award: worldwide acclaim and respect, fancy invitations to lecture at prestigious institutions, parties thrown in their honor, cash, and sometimes even an honorary title or two. At the University of California, Berkeley, professors who win Nobel prizes get an arguably more valuable perk: a prime parking spot on a notoriously crowded campus.
But do students benefit when their college or university has a Nobel Prize winner on staff?
This is a relevant question for students to consider when applying to colleges, because there are many Nobel Prize winners at the nation’s institutions of higher learning—and not just at high prestige schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton. The University of Maryland, for example, has a long list of Nobel winners, as does Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago at Urbana-Champaign, and the Universities of Minnesota, Wisconsin-Madison, California at Los Angeles, Colorado, Washington, and many more. This demonstrates how successful American schools have been at fostering innovation and invention.
It’s entirely possible that students at those schools could find themselves studying in a department where those prize-winning professors teach or have a great influence on the department’s curriculum. For example, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, students take classes with 2003 Physics winner Anthony Leggett. Harvard professor Roy J. Glauber won the prize for Physics in 2005, but “despite his position at the apex of discovery, Glauber continues to teach the complex science to freshmen and to the public through a well-attended course at the Harvard Extension School.” That’s the university’s continuing education branch, which is open to the public. That means anyone can take a course with this Nobel Laureate!
What are the Benefits for Students?
Many Nobel prize winners are committed to teaching. Sir Harold Kroto, who won in 1996 for Chemistry and teaches at Florida State University, told NobelPrize.org, “With my Global Educational Outreach for Science Engineering and Technology (GEOSET) initiative I hope we can work with the world’s best teachers to build a global cache of free educational material readily accessible by the Internet to help teachers wherever they are to teach to their full potential.” He wants to expand his commitment to education by broadening his outreach through technology.
For students, then there are many benefits to enrolling in a college with such prestigious faculty:
- Solid funding: A Nobel-prize winner on campus means that the school has either supported their research financially, has a substantial endowment that grows when the school’s academic reputation improves, and has a good reputation among organizations, including the U.S. government, that provide funding (e.g. grants) for long-term research projects. Funding translates into better facilities. Students studying in such programs may have access to top-quality libraries, laboratories, advanced technological equipment, and money for undergraduate and graduate researchers.
- Cutting-edge information: Let’s face it: Professors by definition are experts in their fields, but not all of them will be knowledge-generators, the people who actually create new areas of inquiry and information through writing and research. If you take a course with a Nobel Laureate, you might not necessarily learn more than you would from any other professor, but you may have the opportunity to interact with someone who thinks or acts in a boundary-breaking way. I say “may” because many Nobel winners have expressed dismay over winning, because they are fully aware of how collaborative their achievements have been and how, especially in the sciences, discoveries can be accidental or serendipitous as well as the products of long years of labor. But who wouldn’t want to study with someone who is humble about such achievements?
Are There Any Drawbacks?
- Limited opportunities: Some Nobel laureates don’t actually teach many students. The award comes with new obligations to the larger intellectual community off campus, and they often travel to give guest lectures. Their courses, when they teach, are often small and advanced seminars. They also may be engaged in research, or work with undergraduates and graduates through lab-based research instruction. This means that competition to get into their courses may be tough.
- Teaching quality may vary: Not all great researches, writers, or peace advocates are also gifted instructors. Sometimes, the best instructors are those that are able to focus all their energies on teaching itself. But some Nobel winners are also amazing teachers. As with all instructors, the effectiveness of a Nobel-winning professor boils down to the individual.
In general, then, a Nobel Prize winner can be a great benefit to a university’s prestige and financial resources. But for students, the same conclusion is true for all potential instructors: it all depends on the individual professor’s teaching style and effectiveness. You can learn just as much from a non-prize winner as you can from a Nobel Prize winner. But in one area, at least, you may be able to count on prize winning professors of all kinds, from Pulitzer to Nobel winners: at least one winner has proven that even the most unlikely student can go on to great success—and maybe even win a Nobel Prize. John B. Gurdon, this year’s Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, was thus described by his high school biology teacher:
“I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”
So if you get the opportunity to take a class with a Nobel Prize winner but struggle with the material, remember that they may be more sympathetic to your struggles than you think.