In his office in the southeast corner of Hall-Atwater Laboratories, Associate Professor of Chemistry T. David Westmoreland volunteered some of his time to meet with The Argus. Now in his 33rd year teaching at the University, Westmoreland commented on recent changes to the Chemistry Department and the new faculty’s research. Much to the relief of Argus readers, Professor Westmoreland has offered a simplified explanation of his research, involving MRI contrast agents.
In addition to chemistry, Westmoreland is a fan of classical music and a self-proclaimed mediocre oboist (though we’ll have to see for ourselves). He was also involved in the early days of the Big Drop, an event where science students throw a variety of objects from the roof of the Exley Science Center. And what is Westmoreland’s favorite chemical? Read on to find out more!
The Argous: What was your professional life like before teaching? What attracted you to Wesleyan?
T. David Westmoreland: Well, that’s not so interesting. I went to do an undergraduate degree [in] chemistry, went to graduate school, did a few postdocs, then came to Wesleyan.
I liked the idea of being in academia rather than industry. I have always loved teaching. It seemed like a great mix between teaching and research. I took a year off and was at Yale for a year a long time ago, but otherwise only taught Wesleyan.
A: And how many years have you worked here?
TDW: I started here in the fall of 1989, so I think I’m starting my 33rd year, something like that.
A: It’s impressive!
TDW: It’s actually very scary!
A: Considering you’re not new to the chemistry department, how have you seen it and Wesleyan grow during your time here?
TDW: Chemistry as a field has evolved enormously, as you can imagine. We’ve had a lot of retirements over the last decade and a half. Thus, nearly half to two-thirds of the faculty have joined the department since then, and it is now a much younger department. The new people are just fantastic and doing wonderful things and being remarkable.
A: How do you adapt your research and your courses to new developments in chemistry?
TDW: Of course we include it. There are other people working on the same kind of stuff as us, so it’s always interesting to read their articles and think about what we’re doing, and how it relates. And when appropriate, yes, I incorporate current research into the courses.
A: What is your current research about?
TDW: I am an inorganic chemist and currently focus on contrast agents for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Almost 50% of MRIs are performed in clinics, where patients are injected with a contrast agent, which of course increases the contrast in them. They are all inorganic materials.
Our latest work focused on understanding the relationship between the stabilities of these contrast agents and their contrast properties. We are also looking at new types of contrasts with mechanisms of action that are not well understood.
A: Is the goal to create safer agents?
TDW: It’s a look. The other is to try to understand the chemistry that goes on in some of the established contrast agents and use that as a basis for designing new ones.
A: Have your interests always been science? Do you have other interests?
TDW: Yes, I was always going to be a chemist. Mainly through the influence of a high school chemistry teacher.
And of course ! I have outside interests and scientific interests. I’ve always been interested in adjacent sciences: physics, a bit of biology, but not a lot. I have interests in music, American history, etc. I am a very bad oboist, I take lessons with [Oboe Instructor] Libby van Cleve. In fact, Libby van Cleve, [Adjunct Associate Professor of Music] Nadya Potemkina, the conductor, and I organize a series of concerts of Bach cantatas every semester. We will have the 10th concert on November 4th. It’s a wonderful band because it’s students, teachers and community members coming together to do this concert. It’s just a really fun thing that Wesleyan comes up with.
A: I understand you were the head of the chemistry department recently…
TDW: Oh dear.
A: Oh, is this a difficult subject?
TDW: Well, ironically, whenever someone in the department is upset about something, you find out as president. There is often not much to do. Much of it involves standard administrative tasks: setting up the program, approving people who want to add the major, [and] anything unusual that also needs to be addressed. Typically, departmental promotion and tenure records, all communication with higher level administration, departmental finance management, departmental staff, research, etc., go through the chair. It’s terrible work.
A: And all this while you teach and in the lab?
TDW: Yes. You do not get any course exemptions when you are in science.
A: Can you detail the origins of the Big Drop?
TDW: The Big Drop started a few years ago when I was the manager of WesMASS [Wesleyan Mathematics and Science Scholars]. It occurred to us that we needed something festive to do at the end of the semester, so I asked [Director of Environmental Services] Bill Nelligan, our health and safety manager for the University, if we could throw things off the top of Exley. He said yes.
So that’s what we do on the last day of classes in the spring. WesMASS throws things like watermelons, computers, and bouncing balls off Exley’s roof, and between things coming off the roof, chemistry majors put on dramatic displays, mostly involving ground fires and explosions, to the crowd.
The other thing we do—and I think there have been articles in The Argus about this before—is in the spring. I run a student forum, [“The Science and Art of Chemical Demonstrations”]. It is a group of students who learn to play and present demonstrations. We usually do a big chemical magic show at WestFest. They do it at Big Drop. They’re doing chemistry demonstrations, at least pre-COVID, at local schools and trying to get some high school students involved. It has always been a fun class. It’s called Blow Things up for Course Credit. They just did a presentation for the directors a week ago, Saturday [Sept. 24]so it was a lot of fun.
A: Is there a scientific basis for dropping objects from the roof? Are calculations made?
TDW: Well, it’s just fun to see what happens when they hit! College is a place where you should be able to do things that you weren’t allowed to do before and can’t do after. This is where we let people do things they won’t get another chance to do.
A: Do you have a favorite chemical, and why is it your favorite?
TDW: Caffeine! Without caffeine, I would have retired a long time ago.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carolyn Neugarten can be reached at [email protected].