David Brown, Visiting Associate Professor of Chemistry, is set to retire after 15 years of service to the College. It all began with an initial appointment to fill a visiting faculty position in 1997—“a rescue of two mutually needy parties,” Brown quipped.
Born in Cedartown, Ga., Brown earned a B.S. in chemistry from Berry College in nearby Rome, Ga., minoring in mathematics. Berry is a small liberal arts college much like Davidson, and Brown’s experience there would shape his future career.
“During my own undergraduate and graduate education, I attended a small liberal arts college, a large, public university and finally a medium-sized private university,” he said. “In my opinion, for undergraduates, the liberal arts college education is far superior to both of the other two options.”
A transformative experience during Brown’s undergraduate education was, like for many Davidson students, studying abroad. Studying in Austria and Germany, according to Brown, “influenced my eventual decision to seek employment with a German chemical firm.”
First came graduate school. After “two years of misery” in graduate school at Florida State University, Brown transferred to Emory, earning his Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry in 1986.
After graduating, Brown got a job in the chemical industry working for the German chemical company Hoechst Celanese. Over the course of his time there, Brown was exposed to a wide range of projects, “from classical R&D, to pilot plant scale-up, to safety and environmental issues, to corporate recruiting at colleges and universities, to working with marketing and customers, to international chemical issues with our parent company in Germany and, eventually, to human resources and management issues,” he said.
“Of course, I enjoyed the organic chemistry projects the most,” he added. Those included a wide variety of topics, from light-sensitive polymer coatings for computer chips, to dyes, lubricants and surfactants, to synthetic textiles and plastic beverage bottles.
But, anticipating an impending breakup of Hoechst Celanese, Brown began to look for other employers, happening by chance on Davidson in 1997, when a visiting position in organic chemistry was being advertised. He was offered the one-year position, which he accepted.
“At the end of that year, I expressed my love for my new job and my desire to continue for one more year,” Brown said, “and the administration agreed graciously to renew my contract for one more year! And now, here I am 15 years later, still enjoying myself.”
In addition to time in the classroom, Brown has spent his career working on a number of problems within the larger umbrella of green chemistry, which aims to develop more environmentally friendly chemical products and manufacturing processes. Specifically, he is interested in natural products (herbs and plant chemicals) and polymers.
His most recent and, according to Brown his most exciting, project has been developing a catalyst that, when incorporated into cigarette filters, causes the cellulose acetate in unsightly cigarette butts to break down over time. Eventually nothing is left but glucose and acetic acid, which wash away with no detriment to the environment.
In addition to research on greener chemical reagents, catalysts, polymers and solvents, Brown has worked on green chemistry pedagogy, policy and developing a global peer network, as well as “helping transition North Carolina from a furniture-, textile-, and tobacco-based economy into a professionally educated, green, natural products- and wine-based and scientific R&D-based economy.”
As for the big changes on campus Brown has seen in his time at Davidson, he cites the growth of the campus with new and refurbished buildings, from the conversion of Johnston Gym to the Union, to the construction of Tomlinson, Watson, Davis, the Duke Family Performance Hall and now the new dorms, plus countless wide-ranging refurbishment projects.
“One building still in sore need of attention is Martin,” Brown added. “All of the other liberal arts colleges with whom Davidson competes for new students have far superior physical facilities for chemistry, relative to Davidson. Discussions are currently underway to address this, so I am hopeful that our need will be remedied soon—before any other additional major projects are undertaken.”
Aside from facilities, Brown cites “watching the student body grow,” the hiring of new faculty in his department, the appointment of three presidents, including the first female president, and the development of a chemistry minor, an environmental studies major and a biochemistry concentration as particularly notable. Additionally, he has enjoyed “seeing so many of my advisees/mentees continue after four years at Davidson to earn graduate degrees and begin their exciting careers in science and medicine.”
As for science as a whole, Brown is excited by the genomics revolution and the prospect of personalized medicine. “Essentially, this is molecular medicine tailored specifically to every individual person and every major disease—dementia, heart disease, all types of cancer, etc. To me, that is incredibly exciting.”