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Burruss Hall with Sesquicentennial Banner behind Campus Trees

Letter from the Chair

Dear Alumni and Friends of the Department,

It is a great honor to be writing you as the new Chair of the Department of Chemistry. That’s right. In August, Alan Esker completed his term as Chair and some would say his smile grew three sizes that day. Due to the on-going pandemic, it became harder for the Department to communicate regularly with our alumni and friends, so I want to be the first to tell you that, in a mere four years, Alan Esker transformed our Department in several impactful ways. 

Under Alan’s watch, we hired seven new Assistant Professors – Valerie Welborn (Physical/Theory), Emily Mevers (Organic), Diana Thornton (Inorganic), Lina Quan (Physical/Analytical), Adrian Figg (Polymer), Emily Gentry (Organic), and Josh Worch (Polymer). With the addition of these amazingly talented faculty members, we diversified our faculty, reaching 23% women in our tenured or tenure-track ranks. We also diversified our faculty in terms of racial diversity, reaching 10% of faculty from underrepresented populations. 

We created two new undergraduate majors in Polymer Chemistry and Medicinal Chemistry. The popularity of the Medicinal Chemistry degree is clear – students pursuing that degree now make up 40% of our majors. We also conceived a major change to our majors’ curriculum, a re-ordering of our entry-level courses, that went into practice with this year’s incoming class. First-year students will now take General Chemistry I and Organic Chemistry I with their accompanying laboratories in their first year. General Chemistry II and Organic Chemistry II will be taught simultaneously in the fall of their second year. The Department voted to pilot the change in response to our ever-changing undergraduate student population and our desire to increase student success and retention.

Esker’s term also shepherded the Department into a period of fiscal health thanks in part to the generous donations of our alumni and friends. We have seen the establishment of the Ward Fellowship, which will support a graduate student in the area of polymer chemistry. Additionally, we have seen a steady increase in annual giving from 2018-2021 with more donors participating each year. Annual Giving donations have enabled expanded recruitment efforts at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. We are incredibly thankful for your continued support of our department and the next generation of Hokie chemists. 

With the coming of the new year, I look to the future of the Chemistry Department – and it is bright. We have a strong core of highly research active tenure and tenure-track faculty that are hitting well-above their weight in research impact. Coupled with innovative curricula and award-winning instruction, I firmly believe we have the top program in Virginia. And it finally looks like US News and World Report agrees – we are now ranked higher than UVA in the most recent “Best Global Universities for Chemistry” rankings. Let’s Go Hokies!

Joining me in Departmental leadership, our Associate Chair John Matson will handle new efforts in faculty honorifics and expanded graduate recruitment. Alan did not completely leave departmental administration and now oversees our graduate program as the Graduate Program Director. Paul Deck has taken the helm of our undergraduate program as Undergraduate Program Director. We have hired an Assistant Professor of Practice, Tim Saarinen, to oversee our Department’s Experiential Learning Program with the goal of placing all our major students into a research lab or internship experience, as well as the aspirational goal of reaching 100% job placement for our undergraduate students.

We hired a dedicated Communications Director, Greg Atkins, who brings you this, his first issue of Elements. Lastly, we hired Kate Foiles, executive assistant extraordinaire, who has jumped headfirst into the role of organizing all our departmental events, including our first annual Homecoming Happy Hour (mark your calendars for the Friday of Homecoming weekend next year – we would love to see you!).

In this short one-page letter, I can simply skim the surface of the exciting things brewing in the Department. In the pages that follow, you will read about the award-winning research of two of our talented Assistant Professors; the awards that our current faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students have earned over the last two years; and, unfortunately, the passing of a giant from our chemistry past, Jim Wolfe. We already have stories started for our next edition of Elements. The Department is going places – and we can’t wait to share more great news with you! 


Amanda J. Morris Signature
Amanda J. Morris
If you want to have an impact on our students and faculty like those featured in this magazine, go here to  support the Department of Chemistry.
For more information, call Mike Walsh, Assistant Dean of Advancement for the College of Science at (540) 231-4033.