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Movers And Shakers

Golden Anniversary

Royce murray celebrates 50 years at the University of North Carolina

by Celia Henry Arnaud
August 23, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 34

Credit: Courtesy of Royce Murray
Murray displays a fish that didn’t get away.
Credit: Courtesy of Royce Murray
Murray displays a fish that didn’t get away.

In August 1960, Royce W. Murray arrived at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, as an instructor in the chemistry department. Fifty years later, the 73-year-old Murray is still at UNC and still going strong. This week at the American Chemical Society national meeting in a symposium sponsored by the Divisions of Analytical Chemistry and Inorganic Chemistry, former students and other friends will pay tribute to those 50 years.

A native of Birmingham, Ala., Murray grew up in what he calls “a technical setting.” His father was a self-taught electrical engineer and an expert in high-voltage equipment who worked for Alabama Power. Even though Murray would eventually become an electrochemist, the closest he came to high voltage during those years was fishing off transformer platforms at hydroelectric dams. He still enjoys fishing today. “I didn’t dream of being a chemist,” he says.

Murray instead came to chemistry by the same route taken by many of his generation: A chemistry professor sparked his interest. As a freshman at Birmingham-Southern College, Murray took chemistry with William R. Smithy—and he was hooked.

On the advice of another one of his professors, Ken Gordon, Murray went to Northwestern University for graduate school, where he studied electrochemistry with Richard C. Bowers and Donald D. DeFord. “I did my thesis on the first operational amplifier-based instrument that Bowers and DeFord put together,” Murray recalls. “It was really a multipurpose instrument. The front of it looked like a telephone switchboard. You could change it from one kind of instrument to another. The op-amp development changed the face of electrochemistry.”

After graduating from Northwestern in 1960 at the age of 23, Murray went straight to UNC. “Postdocs were not standard,” he says. He instead had what he calls a “pseudo-postdoc,” with fellow faculty member Charles N. Reilley playing the role of mentor.

“I had the benefit of a different kind of education into what was what,” Murray says. “Charlie didn’t give advice on anything but understanding chemistry. He and I spent many evenings at his house—Charlie smoking one cigarette after another—drinking coffee and talking.”

Murray’s year in the early 1970s as the first rotating program officer in the Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation marked a turning point in his thinking about chemistry. “I had this experience for a whole year of reading ideas. I learned a heck of a lot,” he says. “I went to NSF saying, ‘I’m an electroanalytical chemist; I should do what an electroanalytical chemist does.’ When I came back, I didn’t think like that. I tended to identify the problem as a measurement problem that’s associated with a particular kind of chemical, not an abstract measurement. It took me several years to realize that I was thinking about chemistry in a different way.”

R. Mark Wightman, now a chemistry professor at UNC, was a graduate student with Murray during the time he was at NSF. “He set it up wonderfully,” Wightman says. “If we asked him for something, we could always get it because we had plenty of money, and he had lots of good ideas. We had everything you want as a scientist, especially one who’s going into academics and wants to be independent.”

Murray gives his students a large degree of independence, but he’s also there if they need him. “He knows if you’re floundering, and he’ll let you flounder for a while, but he really wants you to pick yourself up and find a direction,” says Debra R. Rolison, an electrochemist at the Naval Research Laboratory who got her Ph.D. under Murray. “He can nudge people of a range of abilities to get good research out and improve themselves as a scientist in the process.”

Murray has focused on electrochemistry and its applications for most of his career. In the early days, he focused on instrumentation and technique development, but after his time at NSF he took a much more interdisciplinary approach to his research.

“In his research, Royce really helped foresee where science has moved,” Rolison says. The work in Murray’s lab “was multidisciplinary and way ahead of its time in terms of understanding the chemistry of interfaces.”

As an analytical chemist, Murray is particularly interested in figuring out ways to make measurements that no one has done before. But he has never been afraid of synthesis. “The best thing in the world is to invent a new chemical and to invent a new measurement to study it with,” he says.

He is perhaps best known for his work on chemically modified electrodes. “At the time, every electrochemist wanted absolutely clean electrodes—‘Don’t put any stuff on my electrodes,’ ” Wightman says. “Royce said, ‘Why not?’ Let’s chemically decorate it and make it do things we want it to do.’ It turned out to be a good idea.”

Mark A. Ratner, a theoretical chemist at Northwestern, considers Murray to be the pioneer in understanding electron transport in complicated systems. “So much of the conceptual basis for how electrons move in complicated materials really goes back to Royce’s work,” Ratner says. “He’s not a theorist, but he talked about the right kind of theory to describe what was going on in those systems,” such as modified surfaces and self-assembled monolayers.

The importance of the work with chemically modified electrodes was as much philosophical as it was scientific, Rolison says. “He changed the way the worlds of chemistry and materials science look at conductive surfaces,” she says. “We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing with self-assembled monolayers and much of nano without that sea change in how the world looks at those kinds of interfaces.”

Murray’s work on surface characterization has led him to his current area of research, characterization of metal nanoparticles. “I think of the subject globally as the analytical chemistry of nanoparticles,” Murray says. “How do you know what they are? From the very beginning, I wasn’t satisfied with saying, ‘This is a 2-nm nanoparticle.’ I wanted to know the number of atoms and how the properties change with the number of atoms. You can’t do that unless you know how to make different sizes and tell what they are. The key to that whole area was learning how to do the analytical chemistry.”

Some areas of research have ended in disappointment. Murray’s group is one of the few to have done electrochemical measurements with superconducting electrodes in the superconducting state. He was especially attracted by the possibility of being able to electrochemically deliver pairs of electrons. The experiments, which were carried out by postdoc John T. McDevitt, now at Rice University, were “excruciatingly hard,” Murray says. The electrodes corrode very easily and are difficult to make. Although they were able to make some measurements, Murray was eventually nudged by his grant sponsor to abandon the work. “We set that experiment aside, with some regret,” he says. “I would still like to be able to do that experiment. It’s going to require the invention of high-temperature superconductors with T cs higher than exist today.” T cs are transition temperatures below which a superconducting material’s electrical resistance disappears.

In addition to his research, Murray has a strong record of service, both to UNC and to the broader chemistry community. At UNC, he has twice participated in the planning of major scientific facilities—the Kenan Labs that opened in 1971 and the Science Complex that is currently being built. At ACS, he has served on the Society Committee on Publications and on the executive committee of the Division of Analytical Chemistry.

But for the past 20 years his most visible service role has been as the editor of Analytical Chemistry, published by ACS. Murray takes pride in the fact that the journal has improved and gained prominence over that time. “If I say what I did to make that happen, it was my choices of associate editors,” he says.

Others agree about the level of quality Murray has brought to the journal. “It’s certainly the place to publish if you’re an analytical chemist,” says Henry S. White, an electrochemist at the University of Utah who did undergraduate research with Murray. “He’s really set the standard with his own high standards.”

In addition, with his view that “analytical chemistry is what analytical chemists do,” Murray has embraced the discipline’s fuzzy boundaries and expanded the areas that fall within the journal’s purview. “Royce really helped broaden what people thought they could submit to Analytical Chemistry,” says Robin L. McCarley of Louisiana State University, a former Murray grad student.

The changes that have occurred in publishing over those two decades have kept the job fresh, Murray says. Such changes include the more businesslike approach to publishing and the technology changes that have accompanied electronic publishing, which have increased the scale of what can be published and improved the timeliness, Murray adds.

Despite his many scientific and service contributions, many people suggest that his most important legacy is the legion of students who have passed through his lab. “So many of them have stayed in the area of electrochemistry for decades,” White says. “All through the U.S., in chemistry departments everywhere, you find Royce Murray students who are working and continuing this research in electrochemistry.”

Murray has never felt an urge to leave UNC. “I’ve had a long string of wonderful students,” he says. “I’ve got great colleagues. Most of the time the UNC administration has been darn good,” he says.

And he has no plans to leave anytime soon. “I’m still considering new students, which means a future obligation,” he says. “I like what I do. I’m going to do it as long as I’m able to.”


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