Thought Leader

Mudd Prize winner and faculty chair Tom Donnelly

Tom Donnelly, professor of physics and incoming chair of the faculty, joined the HMC faculty in 1997 and, in addition to pursuing research using ultrafast laser pulses as a tool for exploring nature, has served in various leadership roles, including associate dean of the faculty and Core Curriculum director. While away on a yearlong sabbatical in the Algarve (southern Portugal), he was notified that he’d received the 2019 Henry T. Mudd Prize, which recognizes extraordinary service. He says he’ll use half of the $6,000 award to establish an informal faculty gathering, like a weekly happy hour. Such a gesture is one of the reasons nominators selected Donnelly for the award. He is lauded for “mentoring and advocating for junior faculty, epitomizing selfless dedication to Harvey Mudd College [and] being a true citizen of the community.” Donnelly spoke with us shortly before returning from Portugal.

Tom Donnelly with students in lab.
Tom Donnelly with research students Hao Cao ’17 and Caleb Eades ’16.

What did you do during your sabbatical?

I collaborated with a scientist at the University of the Algarve who is developing optical sensors to try to measure sugar content in fruit. I believe there are potential applications to medicine, specifically helping measure Type 1 diabetes patients’ blood sugar levels. One of my sons has Type 1 diabetes, which means that his body can’t control the amount of sugar in his bloodstream. So, he has to check many times a day how much glucose he has in his bloodstream using finger sticks. It’s a very challenging problem to take blood sugar measurements remotely without needing finger sticks, but if you could get a handheld device that could do sort of an external monitoring of blood sugar levels, you would go a long way toward helping those with diabetes.

Mostly I spent the year learning about climate science. I’ve learned a great deal and have developed a course I hope to teach called Climate and Energy. The course is developed for students who have completed our Core—it relies on their knowledge of math, physics, chemistry, biology and engineering—and have interest in understanding the science that underlies the dynamics of our climate and the implementation of carbon-free energy resources.

Of the various roles you’ve held during your more than 20 years at HMC, what has best prepared you for the chair of the faculty position?

My various administrative roles at the College have given me the chance to work with some incredible faculty members. From them, I’ve learned about the College’s traditions, the roles of various administrative positions and committees, how the relationships between the faculty, the administration, and the board function, and, hopefully, how to get things accomplished for the College. Perhaps also all the informal, lunchtime and hallway conversations I’ve had with individual faculty over the years have helped me to get to know people and to understand a little bit about their aspirations for the College.

How do you envision uniting peers to achieve the goals of the College?

Open and informed conversations are the best way for uniting people. The faculty, of course, is not of one view on most things, so finding a way to get people to talk and providing data, information and context to fuel those conversations is very important, as is being transparent about motivations. The role of the chair of the faculty and the Faculty Executive Committee in trying to unite the faculty is to provide venues and context to facilitate conversations—not to take a point of view—so that people can understand the ideas and concerns of their colleagues.

The governance of the College is shared by the faculty, the administration and the board. To the extent that everybody is communicating well, we’re all working toward the same goal—the betterment of the College—and we do that through shared governance. So, it’s a nice tradition, it’s a nice idea, and I think it’s good for the College when it happens.

The College is reviewing its strategic vision and working on its WASC reaccreditation, a new building is being constructed, the Core curriculum is being reviewed, the community is meeting to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion issues—a busy year ahead! What do you consider to be the priorities?

I do think the Core revision will continue to be an extremely high priority for the faculty. The Core review is interlaced with most other issues, including diversity and equity discussions, WASC and the strategic vision.

The Mudd Prize award citation notes that you are an advocate for a well-balanced and healthy life. How have you tried to achieve these things in your life? What have you suggested for others?

I think that “balance” means different things to different people, as we all have different priorities. The important thing is to decide what balance means to you and then translate that into how you will spend your time. And, of course, those priorities are subject to change from year to year as family, health and work circumstances change. For me, balance is some combination of family, work and a little time on my own (usually taken while I’m running). It’s very important that I spend time with my family: my wife, Cheryl, and our twin sons, who just went off to college. Cheryl and I are figuring out what balance looks like in this next phase of our life—a lot of time just opened up! In addition to family time, I’m a bit of an exercise junkie, so I run whenever I can, which gives me some time on my own to think. I make that a priority because I feel better and happier when I exercise; I’m better at my job and with my family when I make the time to get out on the road. Beyond family and exercise, I love being a faculty member at Harvey Mudd, all aspects of it (except grading), and the challenge there is to not let it become overly consuming. So, on any given day, I’m trying to balance family, work and a little time with my thoughts.