Award recognizes classroom instruction, student involvement, research and service
Nathan Hammer‘s life changed forever with a simple question.
Hammer, the Margaret McLean Coulter Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Mississippi, was in an honors freshman chemistry class at the University of Tennessee when his professor asked about his major.
Hammer said he didn’t have one.
The professor asked, “Why not chemistry?”
That was the spark. Hammer went on to earn both his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Tennessee. After two years as a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University and a couple years spent as an Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Massachusetts, Hammer joined the UM faculty in 2007. In 2019, he was named a full professor.
“I have loved science for as long as I can remember and always knew that I would one day serve society as a science teacher in some capacity,” Hammer said. “Chemistry is known as the ‘central science’ because it touches many areas, such as biology, materials science, etc.
“I came to UM primarily because I saw the opportunity to make significant impacts in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. When I arrived, there was no other experimental physical chemist or spectroscopist, and since arriving I have worked hard to not only build our research reputation but also serve our majors and department as a whole.”
That work has included teaching undergraduate and graduate physical chemistry courses, from first-year general chemistry to graduate courses about laser spectroscopy; mentoring more than 100 student researchers; serving as a principal investigator on five National Science Foundation grants totaling more than $7 million; and co-authoring more than 100 publications, including eight journal covers.
For those efforts and more, Hammer was selected for the 2021 Faculty Achievement Award, one of the university’s highest awards and one that recognizes remarkable effort in the classroom, involvement with students, active scholarship, and service to the university.
“Being recognized for excellence in research, teaching, and especially service means a great deal to me and validates my ongoing goal of becoming a teacher and scholar serving the University of Mississippi,” Hammer said.
Outside the classroom, his service to students includes coordinating such programs as the Ole Miss Chemistry Summer Research Program; Bachelor of Science in Chemistry Program, where he also is an adviser; and UM Chemistry Undergraduate Research.
“Dr. Hammer demonstrates the highest measure of excellence in teaching, scholarship and service,” Provost Noel Wilkin said. “He has passionately served his department and our university for more than 10 years, as demonstrated by his impressive publication record, tremendous success at grantsmanship, excellent teaching evaluations and extraordinary service record.
“Dr. Hammer has established a scientific career of the highest caliber at the University of Mississippi that we can all be proud to recognize. His scholarly, instructional and service activities epitomize the teacher-scholar model that is the very essence of this award.”
Hammer assists faculty by working as the faculty research fellow in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, where he provides valuable expertise and assistance in proposal development across the university, particularly for the NSF CAREER program.
He also serves as chair of the Ole Miss Local Section of the American Chemical Society.
“I am happy to help others and share my experiences to help not only other researchers but also the University of Mississippi as a whole,” Hammer said. “During my time here, the department has become much more competitive in research and the university has grown to achieve R1 status.
“Maintaining this status and helping other faculty reach their full potential in scholarship helps improve the lives of everyone involved.”
Born in Johnson City, Tennessee, Hammer was valedictorian of Franklin High School in Franklin, Tennessee, before entering college. While at UT, he was a graduate adviser under Robert Compton, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry, whom Hammer thanks for his ongoing support.
As a structural spectroscopist, Hammer is interested in the structures of molecules and nanoscale assemblies and how these systems are affected when they interact with each other. He and the Hammer Research Group lab study the properties of molecules that collaborators create in synthetic labs – such as how well they absorb and emit light – so that they can design better systems for light harvesting for energy storage and creating new sources of fuels.
“Nathan’s teaching, research and service activities have had a major positive impact on the chemistry department and our students,” said Greg Tschumper, UM professor and chair of chemistry and biochemistry. “I am thrilled to see all of his efforts on and off campus recognized in such a significant way.
“By striving for excellence in all three of those areas, he has really provided an excellent model for other faculty and students who aspire to be professors one day.”
At UM, Hammer said he’s been mentored by colleagues Steven Davis, Randy Wadkins, and Kwang Yun in the art of teaching chemistry and also in grant writing. He’s had the support of former department chair Charles Hussey and now Tschumper – both former recipients of the Faculty Achievement Award – to develop his research program and provide opportunities to serve students, the department and the community in new and unconventional ways.
“I could not have been as successful without the support of my close collaborators both at UM and nationally,” he said. “Lastly, I could never have been successful without the effort of my close to 100 undergraduate and graduate student researchers throughout the years.”
Since the U.S. suffers from a shortage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals, recruiting more students into STEM fields helps both society and the students who have a passion for science that they want to explore, Hammer said.
“The ability to offer research opportunities to high school students and freshmen their first day of college has enabled us to recruit top chemistry majors from across the country,” he said. “Choosing a major is really a lifestyle choice. Students should pursue a major that they love and want to immerse themselves into fully.
“The chemistry bachelor’s degree is for students who love math and physics and want to take every chemistry class offered so that they understand it at the most fundamental levels. It isn’t for everyone, and helping students discover their true calling, I believe, is an important job for faculty.”
Beyond the more than 100 student researchers Hammer has mentored, 14 undergraduate students and one high school student have served as co-authors on publications, and three of Hammer’s student researchers have received coveted Barry Goldwater Scholarships.
His lab’s membership includes a postdoctoral fellow, three graduate students and seven undergraduate students.
“I don’t think that someone should become a professor if they don’t have a passion for teaching and helping students reach their full potential,” Hammer said. “What gets me most excited each day is helping our chemistry majors achieve their personal and career goals.”
By Shea Stewart