Retiring Professor David Brown Promoted Chemistry's Industrial Applications for Good

by Davidson College
David Brown in the middle of a chemistry lab
David Brown leads students in a laboratory exercise.

David Brown came to Davidson to teach chemistry on a one-year contract in 1997. After his first year he got another one-year contract. Then he got one for a couple more years. Then he got a couple of four-year contracts until it all added up to teaching here for 15 years! In recognition of his distinguished service on a continually temporary basis, the Board of Trustees took the unusual step this spring of awarding this visiting associate faculty member the status of "Associate Professor Emeritus" upon his retirement this year.

"I've become attached to this place, and was very humbled by this honor," he confessed. As an emeritus faculty member, he will maintain some much-appreciated privileges--library access and a carrel, and the right to audit courses when space is available, march in academic processions, and use the fitness center.

The chemistry department agreed to continuation of Brown's organization of its Friday afternoon colloquia, and to help host the guest speakers it regularly brings to campus. "I'm very grateful for all of that," Brown said.

Brown brought to Davidson valuable experience and contacts in the world of industrial organic chemistry. After earning his Ph.D. at Emory University in 1986, he worked for Hoechst Celanese for 11 years. But since junior high school he had envisioned himself as a teacher, and that feeling grew during his undergraduate years at Berry College. So when Davidson announced a search for a one-year visiting assistant professor of organic chemistry, Brown responded and won the job. Though the move from industry to education meant a substantial pay cut, he fell in love with the work, and negotiated for reappointments every time his contract expired.

His students knew he was academically challenging, but also knew he would do anything to help them learn and succeed. His success at engaging students has been recognized with the 2005 Omicron Delta Kappa Teaching Award and the 2009 Student Government Association Advisor Award. Sentelle Residence Hall voted him one of Davidson's top 20 best professors to teach first-year students.

One of his nominators for the ODK award recalled a Sunday night when six of his students had been studying for six hours in the Martin Building chemistry library for a test in Brown's class. "He strolled down the stairs to make photocopies of the exam and stuck his head in to see how we were doing. We probably all looked murderous, and tempers were running short. But five minutes later we were sitting in Dr. Brown's car and driving to McAlister's Deli for dinner and a study break. When we got back an hour later we were feeling refreshed and a whole lot better. That's the beauty of the relationship Dr. Brown has with his students--he can pick you up on the worst possible day, when everything has gone wrong, and set everything right."

The citation for his SGA award noted, "He is known for his interest in students' lives, and for taking the time to work with his advisees to figure out what really captivates them, helping them make the best academic decisions possible. Students noted that his dedication to truly understanding their own interests and passions has made all the difference in their academic careers."

Professor Brown receives an award
The Student Government Association awarded Brown its Faculty Pre-Major Advising Award.

Brown's work in industry gave him a lot of practical experience to share with students. He frequently took students on tours of industrial facilities. During his first two years at Davidson he received grants from his former employer, Hoechst Celanese, that provided funding for five student researchers to work on improving plastic beverage bottles. The team did, indeed, discover a material that allowed only half as much carbonation to escape through the vessel walls,  and it's being used commercially to this day in the manufacture of millions of bottles.

At various points in his career, Brown also worked on light-sensitive polymers as coatings on silicon wafers for computer chips, surfactants for personal care products such as shampoos, conditioners, and lotions, lubricants for metals and for fibers, and polyester and cellulose acetate textiles.

His latest project has been helping develop a cigarette filter that will degrade quickly into environmentally friendly byproducts when wet by rain, so that butts vanish within a month or so and eliminate this source of litter in public places. Brown is also interested in designing more biodegradable milk jugs, tires and baby diapers.

There are plenty of problems out there to tackle, and Brown exhibits a missionary zeal for the potential of chemistry to do good in the world. "We have an obligation to use chemistry and other sciences for the benefit of humanity," he said. "You need basic research, of course, but there are so many problems out there now that can be addressed with applied science, and that's what really interests me. I bring industrial examples into the classroom as often as I can."

Brown has also led Davidson and other colleges in curriculum development of "green" chemistry. That includes the use in the lab of more environmentally friendly chemical reagents, catalysts and solvents to reduce pollution. He has also replaced petroleum-based, non-biodegradable polymers with biodegradable ones. He has researched the chemistry of natural products such as herbs and phytochemicals as safer and less-expensive alternative medicine.

Brown said his work at Davidson has been very rewarding. He has enjoyed the development of an academic minor in chemistry, and seeing a large number of advisees and mentees earn graduate degrees in science and medicine.

He believes that the most exciting questions in science today revolve around the human genome and our eventual ability to design personalized, individual medical therapies for patients based on their genetic make-up.

He plans to keep current in science in retirement by attending a dozen or so international conferences. He has already developed a list of all of them, selected in large part because they occur in areas of the globe that are attractive to tourists. He will begin with a "green" chemistry conference in northern Italy this summer. He will also continue to serve as a consultant in research on starch derivatives for a small chemical company in South Carolina.