H. Holden Thorp Jr. 86

Distinguished Young Alumni Award

H. Holden Thorp Jr. ’86

If you know anything about Holden Thorp—and it’s become quite a challenge not to on this campus—then you wouldn’t be surprised to find his chemistry students watching a video in which he messes around with a bazooka and a can of hairspray. Why just drone on about the principle of exothermic reactions when you could put the chemical reaction to work by launching an Idaho potato from a piece of PVC pipe? While you’re at it, Holden figures, you might as well go ahead and elevate yourself to the level of Superhero by splicing in scenes from Star Wars.

We have here an inquisitive lab rat who leapt at the chance to do science at his alma mater, and who has put his research to work in the business world. Perhaps most telling, he is an immensely popular teacher with a flair for theatrics in a course of study that many freshman approach with dread.

And to the University, he is fast becoming that Superhero in real life.

Once Carolina got him hooked on chemistry, Holden did his graduate studies at Cal State, then thesis and postdoctoral work at Columbia and Yale. He landed an appointment at N.C. State, in part because Patti, his wife, wanted to return to North Carolina. Nine months after arriving in Raleigh, at age 27, he was awarded a $500,000 grant for research involving genetic therapy. This was highly unusual for a young chemistry professor just starting his career, and other institutions took notice. Berkeley and MIT came calling, but they didn’t have a chance when a position opened up at Carolina.

What seems to have pushed him to the head of the class, as much as anything, is his knack for engaging even the people whose primary interest is not science. It’s been said that in addition to his knack for relating pure science to the everyday world, he just plain never outgrew the sense of humor, and the mischievous imagination of a beginning adult. He gravitates to young people with broad dreams, often involving undergraduates in his research

Much of his research is serious science—the laying of new groundwork in the field of chemistry, particularly in DNA research, along with exploring the commercial possibilities of electrochemical detection technology to analyze DNA, RNA, and proteins. However, Carolina has also taken note of his unique ability to relate to professional colleagues and lay people alike. In 2001 Holden was named director of the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center project—an ambitious plan to showcase the UNC world of science to the people of the state.

He wants the public to understand the Carolina he loves, and the ambition he has for it. Holden has put it this way:

“The advantage of a place like Carolina is that the upper limit of what’s possible is the very, very top. What we want to provide is an opportunity where the sky is the absolute limit, so that somebody from rural North Carolina without a lot of financial assets can come here and do the same things they would do at Harvard.”

Holden is an honorary member of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and is a recipient of the Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Ruth and Philip Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement, and the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s Life Science Technology award.

Anyone could tell you great things about him. And they would tell you, as did Timothy Kimbrough, the rector at his church, that the busiest and most successful people are never too busy for what is too often called “the ordinary”:

“Dr. Thorp has often been written about as a rising star, prodigy, the go-to guy, even genius of the academy. At Church of the Holy Family we know Holden as the father of John and Emma, the husband of Patti, and one of the young men in the parish we’re most likely to see at the piano or in the kitchen or entertaining little ones throughout the parish. His faith, I believe, compels him to find the most glaring need in the community’s life and to quietly, indeed inconspicuously see that it’s taken care of—from writing a new song for Vacation Church School, to helping young parishioners in need, to cleaning up spilled OJ at a pancake supper.”