Knox College celebrated the accomplishments of four of its alumni by selecting them as recipients of the 2019 Alumni Achievement Awards. Joe Cecchi '68, Mark McIntosh '72, Bridget Coughlin '94, and Joel Christensen '06 formally accepted their awards at the College’s Founders Day Convocation on Friday, February 15.
Established in 1938, the Alumni Achievement Awards recognize outstanding career accomplishments by graduates who attended Knox or Lombard College for at least one full academic year. The Young Alumni Award, established in 2004, is given to one alumna or alumnus 35 years of age or under who has exhibited exceptional work in a field or endeavor, community, state, or nation. Christensen is the 2019 Young Alumni Award recipient.
The 2019 Founders Day Convocation commemorated the 182nd anniversary of Knox's founding on February 15, 1837—the day when Abraham Lincoln and other members of the Illinois General Assembly approved the College's official charter.
College President Teresa Amott noted that the accomplishments of Knox alumni serve as “proof of the enduring value of this special place.”
Joseph Cecchi '68, an academic and physicist, was recognized for achievements in engineering.
He has spent a 50-year career researching the manufacture of semiconductor integrated circuits, specifically the design of the chemical reactors that fabricate the microscopic architecture of the “chips” that power computers, tablets, and smartphones. Cecchi has taught and conducted research at Princeton University and the University of New Mexico, where he also served as dean of the School of Engineering. He has received multiple patents, secured more than $10 million in funding for his research, mentored dozens of post-graduate students, and worked with them on more than 100 publications. Most recently, in working with University of New Mexico’s technology transfer organization, he has helped students and faculty receive 128 patents, create 21 startups, and produce more than $10 million in licensing revenue for the university.
In his Convocation remarks, Cecchi explained that he arrived on campus as an undergraduate who was interested in majoring in physics. “As I moved through the physics curriculum, I found my interest was continually fueled and strengthened,” thanks largely to Knox’s physics faculty and students, he said.
Cecchi said he enjoyed the “strong, positive atmosphere of intellectual vitality” at Knox and thrived in it. He found himself attracted to a career in higher education.
Knox did much more beyond preparing him for a career, he added. “Among other things, I learned how to communicate creatively and effectively, how to think across disciplines critically, to be resourceful in discovering and analyzing information, [and] perhaps most importantly, how to cultivate intellectual curiosity. It’s a force that promotes lifelong learning. These are the lessons that just keep on giving.”
Bridget Coughlin '94, president and CEO of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, was recognized for achievements in science education and public outreach.
Since joining Shedd Aquarium in 2016, she has led its mission to educate and engage the public about aquatic animals and their habitats. She previously served as vice president of strategic partnerships and adjunct curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and she spent five years at the National Academy of Sciences. She also led research teams funded by the National Institutes of Health, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.
Coughlin, who majored in biochemistry at Knox and later earned a doctorate, told the audience at Convocation that her overall Knox experience helped her get where she is today.
“What each student has the privilege of doing here on this campus is learning beyond the curriculum. And that beyond-the-curriculum learning is why I think that I am equipped to be a CEO and advance science communication on a national and international platform,” she said after describing herself as an unremarkable student who changed majors, participated in clubs, and played soccer.
Beyond-the-curriculum learning meant, in part, applying unsuccessfully to become a resident assistant. Coughlin, now a mother of three children, said it also meant “seeing faculty and staff, particularly the female ones, bringing their children on campus and having open office hours with a professor who has a little one in tow in the corner.” That taught her it was “OK to be smart and have a career and have a family.”
Knox’s trimester schedule, in which students take three courses each term, is another example of beyond-the-curriculum learning because “you can go deep” into academic studies and learn to work very hard, she said.
Mark McIntosh '72, a researcher and administrator at the University of Missouri, was recognized for achievements in higher education.
He joined the University of Missouri faculty in 1981 and was the first director of the university’s DNA Core Facility. His research has focused on the biochemical processes by which bacteria infect and cause disease within host organisms, and he has worked with university researchers to study microorganisms present in mammals and their effect on health and disease. Since 2015, he has served as Vice Chancellor for Research, Graduate Studies and Economic Development at the University of Missouri in Columbia, helping researchers find commercial applications for their lab discoveries. In 2017, he was appointed Vice President for Research and Economic Development for the entire University of Missouri System.
In his Convocation speech, McIntosh recalled growing up in west Texas, playing high school football, and setting foot on the Knox campus for the first time after a 16-hour train ride. During his time at Knox, he was especially influenced by biology Professors Billy Geer and Peter Schramm. Creative Writing Professor Robin Metz, and coach and Athletic Director Harley Knosher.
He knew early on that he wanted to focus on studying biology, and he engaged in research with Geer and Schramm. After leaving Knox, he studied at two major research universities, the University of Texas and the University of California at Berkeley, and felt well-prepared by his Knox education.
“I had experienced science in a totally different way than any of my colleagues at these institutions—that is, I had experienced science from outside of science,” he said. “The other curriculum that I experienced here was as meaningful as the science curriculum that I got here.”
Joel Christensen '06, an attorney and partner at St. Louis-based law firm Behr, McCarter & Potter, LLC, was recognized for achievements in law.
Christensen was named one of Missouri’s Up & Coming Lawyers by Missouri Lawyers Weekly and has been recognized by Super Lawyers as a Rising Star in business litigation. While in law school, he was editor-in-chief of the Washington University Journal of Law & Policy. He now serves as an adjunct professor at the Washington University School of Law, teaching courses in contracts, torts, and legal writing.
At Convocation, Christensen told the audience about the first time he, accompanied by his mother, visited Knox and met Lane Sunderland, Chancie Ferris Booth Professor of Political Science and pre-law advisor. “He welcomed us, and he and I began a conversation which began a relationship—which I didn't know then, but I do know now—changed the course of my life.”
Christensen explained that as a Knox student, he developed close, long-standing relationships with faculty members, including Sunderland; Lance Factor, George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy; and Jonathan Powers, assistant professor of economics. He made friends from all over the United States and from places as far away as Egypt and Sri Lanka. “That’s the kind of thing that happens at Knox,” Christensen said.
While attending Knox, he had a wide variety of experiences. He helped start a grilling club, and he completed three internships, including one with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Christensen said that he had known as a prospective student that Knox regularly was included among the Colleges that Change Lives. “But what I did not know is the innumerable ways it would change my life,” he said.
Nominations for future Alumni Achievement Awards may be made online through the Knox College website.
Photo above: From left, Bridget Coughlin, Joseph Cecchi, Joel Christensen, and Mark McIntosh