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Chemistry At Duke

by Rudy Baum
November 19, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 47

I recently spent four days at Duke University, in part to attend the dedication of the French Family Science Center, the new home of the university's chemistry department.

The French Center, or FFSC, physically links Duke's Biological Sciences and Physics Buildings. The future of the previous home of the department, the Paul M. Gross Chemistry Laboratory, is being determined, but it won't have any direct connection with chemistry.

During my stay, I interviewed Peter Lange, Duke's provost; John Simon, the vice provost for academic affairs; George McLendon, dean of arts and sciences; and Alvin Crumbliss, dean of natural sciences, about the future of chemistry and of the sciences at Duke. (Simon, McLendon, and Crumbliss are all chemists.) I also interviewed Warren Warren, currently the chairman of the chemistry department, and several members of the chemistry department faculty and members of other science and engineering departments that regularly collaborate with chemists.

Full disclosure: I am hardly an impartial observer. I am an almost annoyingly proud alumnus of Duke, having received my B.A. in chemistry from the university in 1975. That said, I think something very special is going on in the sciences there.

The French Center is a $115 million, 280,000-sq-ft building. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contributed $30 million to construction of the center. Melinda French Gates received her bachelor's degree in computer science and economics from Duke in 1986 and her M.B.A. from Duke's Fuqua School of Business in 1987.

At the FFSC dedication, Lange said that an external review of Duke's chemistry department in 2000 "made one thing crystal clear: We could not build the chemistry department we wanted in the Gross Chemistry Laboratory." Strategic planning undertaken in 2001 found that Duke was behind in science and engineering, Lange continued, and that the university's facilities "did not reflect its priorities in teaching or research."

Part of the vision Lange developed to address the situation was to "push interdisciplinarity even harder than we had previously." A new building to house chemistry and connect it to other sciences was part of that vision.

Melinda Gates was on Duke's Board of Trustees at that time, and Lange and Simon, who was then the chairman of the chemistry department, approached her about support for the new building.

At the dedication, Gates said that she and her husband had decided by that time that their foundation was going to focus on supporting research rather than construction of new buildings. "It was not the building, but the science in Peter's vision that excited me," she told the audience assembled on the tiered lawn in front of the FFSC.

"Bill and I are confident that the accelerating pace of science will solve in our lifetimes some of the most pressing problems facing the world," Gates said. "Research in the French Family Science Center will contribute significantly to solving those problems."

Several of the people I interviewed at Duke noted that the university's emphasis on breaking down the barriers between disciplines is making virtue out of necessity. Duke is a moderate-sized university that will "never have chemistry, physics, and biology departments with 40 to 50 faculty members each," McLendon told me. "It just doesn't make sense." The size of the science departments, the physical compactness of the campus, and the fact that Duke's first-rate medical center is on the central campus combine to facilitate collaborations. Nevertheless, although "part of it is geography," McLendon said, "part is also mind-set."

It is that mind-set that impressed me the most while I was visiting Duke. The excitement about doing research across departments and schools, research that often, as McLendon put it, "puts science in the service of society," is palpable.

I know that Duke is not unique in this regard, but it was a delight to spend the better part of a week among chemists who so clearly see the future of their science.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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