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Celebrating the career of Prof. James Skinner

Following a distinguished academic career, James Skinner, the Crown Family Professor of Molecular Engineering and deputy dean for faculty affairs, will retire at the end of the winter quarter, effective March 20.

Skinner, a renowned theoretical chemist and a leading researcher on hydrogen bonding in water, has been invaluable to the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME). In his role as deputy dean he oversaw faculty searches, appointments, mentoring, tenure and promotions, and facilitated faculty award nominations.

He also served as director of the Water Research Initiative, a collaboration between researchers at the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and Ben-Gurion University in Israel to explore the role of water in pressing global problems.

“Jim has contributed very strongly to PME’s reputation and operations through his distinguished research in statistical mechanics and theoretical chemistry, through his leadership of the water research initiative, and through his service as deputy dean for faculty affairs,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean of Pritzker Molecular Engineering. “He has had an exemplary career, and we wish him nothing but the best in his post-academic life.”

In an email to the PME community, James Skinner reflected on his decision to join the school, then called the Institute for Molecular Engineering, instead of retiring.

“I decided to do so because I was very excited about the mission of IME, was eager to be part of it, and was interested in doing something more applied and impactful for my last academic chapter,” he wrote.

Skinner’s colleagues at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory reflected on working with him and on the lasting impact he made on PME.

“If I could design a perfect colleague, Jim would be the model,” said Seth Darling, senior scientist and director of the Center for Molecular Engineering at Argonne. “He exemplifies supportiveness, generosity with his time and wisdom, and insightful perspective in seemingly all things. A chat with Jim, whether dropping by his office or on a hiking trail in the mountains, inevitably results in a better day.”

“He brought a quality of selflessness to the role that he played at PME in structuring our faculty hiring process, and in getting PME's water research hiring going,” said Supratik Guha, professor of molecular engineering at PME and senior advisor to Argonne Physical Sciences and Engineering. “I felt that he always put the needs of the organization first and knew how to navigate it deftly and fairly.”

“Jim is the best mentor one can have,” said Chong Liu, assistant professor of molecular engineering at PME. “He is super clear and logical in teaching. His students and I enjoyed his lectures very much, and his high bar of teaching motivated me to spend a lot of effort to make my part of the lectures as good as I can.”

Skinner’s colleagues surprised him with a new annual award named in his honor, the James L. Skinner Prize for Excellence in Molecular Engineering Publication. The award, which comes with a stipend of $500, will be given annually to a student that has produced an outstanding paper, selected by a faculty committee.

A pioneer and mentor

Skinner attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he was a double major in physics and chemistry (highest honors in each major). He then entered Harvard University, where he studied with Peter Wolynes, received a National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate fellowship, and graduated with his PhD in chemical physics in 1979.

As a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford he worked under the direction of Hans Andersen and was supported by an NSF postdoctoral fellowship. In 1981, Skinner joined the faculty of Columbia University, becoming professor of chemistry in 1986. In 1990, he moved to the University of Wisconsin, as the Joseph O. Hirschfelder Professor of Chemistry and director of the Theoretical Chemistry Institute.

Skinner has been the recipient of a number of awards for both scholarship and teaching, including the University of Wisconsin Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award (2003), Fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006), American Chemical Society Division of Physical Chemistry Award in Theoretical Chemistry (2011), American Chemical Society Irving J. Langmuir Award in Chemical Physics (2012), Member of the National Academy of Sciences (2012), and University of Wisconsin Hilldale Award in the Physical Sciences (2015). 

He has coauthored over 220 scientific publications, has given over 330 invited lectures, and has served as adviser to 32 graduate students and 14 postdocs.

Skinner has served on editorial boards of several scientific journals including Single Molecules (2000-2003), Journal of Physical Chemistry (2004-2006), Chemical Physics (2005-2009), and Molecular Physics (2008-2014). In 1999, Skinner joined the editorial board of Journal of Chemical Physics, becoming an associate editor in 2009 and a deputy editor in 2015.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here,” said Skinner. “PME is on a spectacular trajectory, and I wish everyone the very best as you and PME enter this next decade.”

Melody Swartz, the William B. Ogden Professor of Molecular Engineering, will take on the position of deputy dean for faculty affairs and will chair the PME faculty search committee effective March 21.