Nuclear astrophysicist, Shakespeare scholar named Lawton Professors

| Thu, 04/15/21
Professor of Physics Jorge Piekarewicz (L) and Professor of English Gary Taylor (R) have been named the 2021-2022 Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professors. (FSU Photography Services/Bill Lax)

Two acclaimed Florida State University faculty members, one a scholar of Shakespeare and the other a nuclear astrophysicist, will be given the highest honor that the faculty bestow upon their own – they will each be named a Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor.

Professor of Physics Jorge Piekarewicz and Professor of English Gary Taylor have been selected to receive the honor for 2021-2022. Both professors are from the College of Arts and Sciences, representing the breadth and strength of FSU’s largest and most academically diverse college.

“Gary and Jorge are two of the finest representatives of the faculty we could have,” said FSU President John Thrasher. “It’s unusual for us to select two Lawtons, but our committee felt so strongly about these two faculty members. That we should have one from physics and one from English – it shows you the depth of this university and the faculty. It was an honor to inform them of their selection.”

The Lawton Distinguished Professor Award was first presented in 1957 as the Distinguished Professor Award. It was renamed in honor of the late Vice President for Academic Affairs Robert O. Lawton in 1981.

Piekarewicz and Taylor will be honored at events throughout the year and will give commencement addresses at a future graduation ceremony.

Piekarewicz came to FSU in 1990 as an assistant scientist and rose through the ranks of the Physics Department, becoming a full professor in 2005. He has authored more than 155 publications and been cited more than 6,500 times. He has served as a member of the Department of Energy/National Science Foundation Nuclear Science Advisory and is a fellow of the American Physical Society.

At FSU, he has been honored with the University Teaching Award in 2001, 2007, 2014 and 2019 and the Graduate Faculty Mentor Award in 2017.

“My dream is to do research and pass that to the students,” Piekarewicz said. “During my time here I’ve enjoyed my research tremendously and have been embracing preparing the next generation for the future. They’re going to be the next scientists.”

Multiple members of the FSU physics department, as well as his students, nominated Piekarewicz for the award. Physicists from University of Milan, Michigan State University, Thomas Jefferson National Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley and Indiana University also sent letters of support.

Professor of Physics and Graduate School Dean Mark Riley, who received the Lawton Professorship in 2014, spearheaded Piekarewicz’ nomination with retired Robert O. Lawton Professor of Psychology James Smith. Riley praised Piekarewicz for his research accomplishments and noted the exceptional impact that his colleague had on his students.

“My office was on the same floor as his and, more often than not, when passing by his room one or more graduate students are there asking him questions about courses and homework or seeking guidance on research topics,” Riley wrote. “Usually these are about courses he is not even teaching that semester, but the students will seek him out for his wisdom in all matters! The extraordinary passion and energy he puts into his mentorship is a shining example to us all.”

Both Piekarewicz and Taylor said they were honored to be counted among their colleagues who had previously received the Lawton designation and marveled at how their selection tells the story of a university being a place to study all types of questions.

“I think it’s fantastic because it encapsulates what working at a university means, that a physics and an English professor can get together and talk about our research under one roof,” Piekarewicz said. “That’s exceptional to me.”

Taylor arrived at FSU in 2005 and has led a major transformation of the English Department. He developed the History of Text Technologies (HOTT), an internationally recognized interdisciplinary doctoral program that links technological innovation to verbal and visual creativity from tattoos and cave paintings to smart phones.

As chair of the English department, Taylor oversees an academic unit that nearly every undergraduate takes at least one course in.

“Language is important to everything — whatever you do, you’re using language,” Taylor said. “In a country where English is the major language, English is the way you communicate about everything and so English has more effect on our lives than any other discipline, because we use it all the time. Learning to use it precisely and paying attention to how other people have used it and being sensitive to the nuances of speech and writing is important to every single person.”

Nominated by Professor of English S. E. Gontarski, Taylor is now the third professor in the English department to earn the Lawton Professorship. Gontarski received the esteemed honor in 2008 and nominated Taylor—alongside scholars from Oxford University, Cambridge University, Notre Dame, Trinity College Dublin, and Sir Stanley Wells, Director of the Shakespeare Institute.

“Gary thinks big,” Gontarski said. “And he has the acumen, contacts, international reputation and communication skills to see projects through and to keep them developing. As a scholar and administrator, department chair and colleague, as an international lecturer and departmental citizen, as a mentor to graduate students and an inspiration to undergraduates, Taylor is the sort of scholar that the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professorship is designed to recognize and reward.”

Taylor is best known for his work on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He co-edited the Oxford University Press collection, “Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works” in 2007 and the “New Oxford Shakespeare: Complete Works” in 2016. That edition provided convincing evidence that Christopher Marlowe played a significant role as co-writer of the early “Henry VI” plays.

Taylor also has published groundbreaking research on Columbus and Eminem, Cervantes and Lin Manual Miranda, as well as work by Foucault never translated into English.

Despite the obvious differences in their chosen fields, both Lawton winners emphasized the importance of educating the next generation of students. And although Piekarewicz studies stars and Taylor examines Shakespeare, both professors look to the past to find answers for the future.

“When he looks at stars, he’s looking at those stars the way they were 100 or 1,000 years ago, and I’m looking mostly at writers who worked 400 to 450 years ago, yet that study of what happened long ago can be transformative for students in the present,” Taylor said.

For more information about the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Award and a list of past recipients, visit