A year like no other . . . with amazing accomplishments

Message from the Department Head David Blank
ChemNews 2020

It has certainly been a year like no other. I am always amazed by the accomplishments of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff. My confidence in our team has never wavered. Then came a once-in-a-generation test of a global pandemic, followed by a national focus on social justice and racism accelerated by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In the middle of the spring semester, our classes were suddenly redesigned and reenvisioned for online delivery, including our laboratory courses. Our research laboratories were placed into a state of hibernation. In response, our department came together like never before. We prioritized everyone’s safety, developed creative ways to deliver course content, and created new laboratory operating procedures that allowed research to move forward safely. Participants at every level stepped up in ways that seemed almost unimaginable, taking on additional responsibilities and providing critical emotional support to their colleagues. At a time when the circumstances felt overwhelming and relentless, the refrain from this team was “how can I help” and “we will make it work.” 

The pivot, as it is locally referred to, from in-person to remote instruction really highlighted the dedication our department has to our students. There are multiple examples detailed in the stories in this issue. One that stands out nationally is the redesign of our general chemistry laboratories. As chemists, we know that the hands-on experience is foundational to laboratory instruction and learning. When COVID safety protocols required the closing of classrooms, including teaching laboratories, many institutions moved exclusively to video recordings of laboratory experiments. Our faculty and staff decided that was not enough. Within a few weeks, Professor Michelle Driessen redesigned the laboratories so the students could safely do them at home. With little advance notice, Director of Operations Chuck Tomlinson, and Senior Laboratory Coordinator Diana Mayweather, Ph.D., and her teaching lab staff somehow met the daunting challenge of assembling and distributing 2,500 fully stocked laboratory take-home kits for the fall semester. This truly exemplifies our department’s dedication to the highest quality education we can provide whatever the circumstance might be. It was also an outstanding example of how we work as a team, with hundreds of hours of volunteer work by students, faculty, and staff from across our department assembling the kits. 

It is more important than ever to take a moment to acknowledge and celebrate some of our awards and accomplishments. You will find many examples from our alumni, students, faculty, and staff throughout this edition of ChemNews. Our department is very proud to recognize the exceptional career and accomplishments of alumna Jeannette Brown, establishing a new lectureship in her honor. This year, graduate student Kang Xiong-Hang became one of the first Hmong women in the United States to earn a doctorate in chemistry. We are also celebrating the immense contributions of three extraordinary staff members with more than 77 years of combined service to our department, Joseph Franek, Eileen Harvala, and Victor Munsch. They have been pillars of our department and critical to success in all aspects of our mission. They will be missed as we wish them the very best in what comes next. As we celebrate the end of these successful careers, we also celebrate new beginnings. This summer we welcomed an exceptional new faculty member, Assistant Professor Jessica Lamb. 

This year, I learned what really defines the students, alumni, faculty, and staff in are our department. I learned that at their core they are made of exceptional stuff, and that they are dedicated to making our department successful in the face of any challenge. We will continue to do the best we can under difficult circumstances, continue to support each other, continue to celebrate our successes, and continue to build and look to the future together.