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ACS Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution

by Sophia L. Cai
January 16, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 3

Credit: Nancy L. Lewis
David K. Lewis, professor of chemistry, Connecticut College
Credit: Nancy L. Lewis

Sponsored by Research Corporation for Science Advancement

From his first years of teaching at Colgate University to his roles as faculty member, provost, and interim president of Connecticut College, David K. Lewis, 68, has done much to promote research for undergraduates. In the laboratory, he inspires young scientists to succeed by involving them in his research in high-temperature gas-phase kinetics. Many of his 125 undergraduate researchers have earned advanced degrees in chemistry or related fields, and most now work in the physical or health sciences.

“I didn’t find chemistry; chemistry found me,” says Lewis, the Margaret W. Kelly Professor of Chemistry at Connecticut College. Growing up in the 1950s, his interest in amateur radio led to expertise in electronics and several winning science fair projects.

As a high school intern at Cornell University, Lewis’ mentors encouraged him to assemble and test a new piece of equipment. This then-novel tool—a gas chromatograph—allowed the lab to do in one afternoon what otherwise would have taken weeks. While an undergraduate at Amherst College, Lewis was again sought out to build equipment in chemistry labs. During the summers, he did research at an Arthur D. Little lab in high-temperature chemistry and atmospheric physics. He earned a B.A. in chemistry from Amherst in 1964 and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cornell in 1970.

When contemplating career paths, Lewis recalls, “it dawned on me that I had had the most wonderful mentors. I was fortunate to have opportunities to do research at a young age and with scientists who really helped me develop my skills and gave me the freedom to try my ideas.” Teaching seemed a natural choice, he says.

“In many cases, undergraduates have not yet figured out what they can’t do,” Lewis says. “It’s great to work with new students who are excited about research.” At the same time, Lewis says he is inspired to teach underrepresented minorities and women who have been put down or feel unwelcome in the sciences. “Even if they have a strong interest in science, they often encounter barriers to success. My mission is to help find ways around those barriers.”

And his students appreciate this attention. “What separates Dr. Lewis from so many other research scientists is that he cares more about the individual student than how much someone actually knows,” says Erick Argueta, a Connecticut College senior who worked in Lewis’ lab and plans to go to medical school. “He understands that learning chemistry, especially physical chemistry, can be difficult at first, but what matters is for the student to try.”

“His students really gain in competence and self-reliance in their experiences in his classes, out-of-class mentoring, and research engagements,” says Lewis’ collaborator John Baldwin, a professor of chemistry at Syracuse University.

Lewis also brings undergraduates aboard at Aerodyne Research, a Billerica, Mass.-based consulting firm where he studies atmospheric pollutants and combustion of new synthetic fuels. Several of them have stayed on as staff after graduation.

Highly respected in his research fields, as a college administrator, and as a promoter of undergraduate research, Lewis remains guided by the gratitude he felt for his own mentors and continues to pass on that legacy.

Lewis will present the award address before the ACS Division of Physical Chemistry.


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