Message From the Chair

David Watson, Chair, wearing a blue collared shirt standing in front of a neutral background color.

Dear alumni and friends,

I hope you are healthy and well. What a year it’s been. Like everyone, everywhere, UB’s Department of Chemistry has experienced tremendous upheaval over the past year. Our students, staff, and faculty have risen to the challenge and adapted, repeatedly, to advance our mission in research, teaching, and service despite the prevailing challenges. I’m inspired by their dedication and resilience, and I’m so proud to be a member of UB’s Chemistry community.

COVID came to Western New York in March 2020. In the span of just ten days, over spring break, our faculty, staff, and graduate-student teaching assistants reinvented instruction, shifting from in-person to remote teaching. It was a huge lift. Instructors adapted syllabi and course requirements, learned to teach remotely, and developed online assessments. Faculty, staff, and teaching assistants developed virtual laboratory experiences that, while not replicating hands-on lab work, nonetheless enabled students to design experiments, interpret data, and prepare laboratory reports. Our administrative staff transitioned to working remotely and have not skipped a beat, maintaining top-notch performance and staying engaged with students and colleagues.

For the 2020-2021 academic year, UB has adopted a modified in-person instructional mode. In Chemistry, most undergraduate courses are taught remotely, whereas smaller graduate-level courses are primarily taught in-person with physical distancing. General chemistry and organic chemistry laboratories are offered both remotely and in-person, and upper-level undergraduate labs are fully in-person. The herculean efforts of our faculty, staff, and teaching assistants have enabled us to offer this range of instructional modes.

COVID has impacted research, but students have persevered. In late March 2020, research laboratories UB-wide entered a 10-week hibernation period. Hibernation was necessary but difficult, as it struck at the core of our mission in scholarship, discovery, and research-centered training and mentoring. During the hibernation period, research groups planned experiments, interpreted data, read, and wrote manuscripts and proposals. Faculty, staff, and students stayed engaged through virtual meetings, as well as online social events such as game nights and trivia contents sponsored by our Graduate Chemistry Club. Sadly, undergraduate research was suspended at spring break and did not resume until the start of the fall semester. Our NSF-sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates program was postponed but will resume this summer.

During hibernation, we developed Laboratory Operation Plans and department-wide guidelines on physical distancing and COVID protocols. Essential staff who manage shared laboratories and facilities soldiered on, working on-site to ensure that we were ready to get back into lab. UB happily emerged from hibernation in June 2020. Researchers now work in scheduled shifts and at lower capacity. While this mode of operation is not ideal, and daily life in our research labs remains fundamentally altered, we are nonetheless making strides in research, and students are progressing towards degrees. Throughout this strange time, I’ve been continually impressed with our students’ dedication to research and their willingness to adapt to the evolving circumstances. Students, staff, and faculty eagerly anticipate the next stages of research ramp-up and a return to normal.

Over the past year, our Chemistry community has also been deeply affected by the worldwide reckoning on racism and inequality, and by ongoing intolerance and violence against Black, Brown, and Asian lives and liberties. Our department has long been home to students, staff, and faculty with diverse racial, ethnic, gender, and religious identities; sexual orientations; and cultures and nationalities. The diversity of perspectives among our community immeasurably benefits our research, scholarship, instruction, learning, and service. Everyone should feel welcome in our department. To this end, last summer we began a concerted, overdue effort to grapple with systemic issues that underpin inequality and negatively impact the scholarship of students from underrepresented groups, both across academia and here at home. Our effort was kick-started by graduate students; colleagues and I are grateful for their bold calls to action. In initial steps, we held a department-wide town hall meeting and established a Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The DIC, which is now a standing committee populated by faculty, staff, and students, is working to identify systemic issues, to advise the department on best practices, and to develop programs to foster an inclusive, representative, and welcoming environment. These are positive developments, but there remains much to be done. As chair, I am committed to ensuring that our actions continue, that we are accountable, and that our department contributes to UB-wide efforts to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Concurrently with the seismic events of the past year, life and work in the department have continued. This newsletter updates you on the arrivals of two new faculty, Profs. David Heppner and Chris Li; the many achievements of faculty, students, and alumni; the recent retirements of faculty and staff; and, sadly, the loss of two former colleagues, Profs. Michael Detty and Peter Lansbury.

It’s been a tumultuous year, indeed. My heart aches for our students. Undergraduates have missed out on so much of the typical on-campus experience, both in the classroom and beyond. Despite our best efforts, things just aren’t the same. Graduate students continue to work in a rigidly-structured laboratory environment and have missed a year’s worth of departmental events and professional meetings. I’m continually inspired, though, by the resiliency and commitment of our students, staff, and faculty. I’m reminded daily of the myriad ways in which they’re going above and beyond to keep our department and university moving forward. As I write on a balmy early-spring afternoon, I’m convinced there is a bright light at the end of this year-long tunnel. I eagerly anticipate transitioning into a new, post-COVID normal during the 2021-2022 academic year!

Finally, I invite you again this year to engage with our department, for example by updating us on your whereabouts and career, by getting in touch with a former advisor, by attending a virtual Foster Colloquium, or by supporting one of our student-centered departmental initiatives. Communication matters now more than ever! My colleagues and I take immense pride in the successes of our students and alumni, and we’re always eager to hear from you.

I hope that you enjoy this year’s newsletter. Let’s stay in touch.

Dave Watson signature.

Dave Watson
Professor and Chair