2008-2009

Address by Kristin L. Wobbe

On Being Installed as the First Metzger Professor of Chemistry at WPI

It is a great privilege to be standing here, having received this honor. I am deeply appreciative of the Metzger family’s great generosity to WPI, and the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. I had the pleasure of meeting Jean, Sally, and Ron this summer and am delighted that they were able to attend this ceremony. It certainly makes the occasion more meaningful. I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet such a wonderful benefactor. Carrying the title of John C. Metzger Professor is a great honor, and it comes with a great responsibility: I aspire to live up to the high levels of achievement attained by John Metzger himself. Thank you for the opportunity to try.

We face a time when it becomes critical for academic institutions to be supported by such generous benefactors. Our world is facing significant and dramatic challenges, different, but as significant perhaps as those facing John Metzger and his classmates as they graduated to a world at war. These challenges require both major enterprises of the university–research into fundamental and applied areas to discover principles and develop creative solutions to our problems, and the education of young minds who will provide the solutions of the future. I find it terribly rewarding and satisfying to be engaged in both of these very important endeavors.

In my research, a collaborative effort with Professor Pamela Weathers of the Biology and Biotechnology Department, we are working to minimize the damage caused by malaria. According to the World Health Organization, each year 500 million people become severely ill with malaria, and 1 million of them die, mostly children and pregnant women. Our research is focused on developing cheaper ways to produce artemisinin, a very effective drug that is produced by plants in quantities far too small to treat all those who need it. Unfortunately, its complex chemical structure also makes standard chemical synthesis far too expensive for treating millions in the developing world.  It is gratifying to think that our work could someday result in many fewer deaths and substantial increases in the health of many in the third world.

However, as satisfying as my research is, it cannot compare to the fun I have in the classroom, particularly in the Great Problems Seminars. The intellectual challenge of learning a completely new area, of trying to select from the wealth of material and ideas those most necessary to equip students to understand the problem and begin to think about solutions, is tremendously fun. To work with another faculty member whose expertise and experiences are different than my own is invigorating. To share our discussions with the students and watch them become engaged and perceive their world a little differently is enormously rewarding.

But more than just being fun, I believe that these courses are important training for our students as they face our significant and dramatic challenges in this day of globalization and interdisciplinary work. Students in these courses begin to develop many of the skills that will serve them well when they join the workforce: most jobs involve more than just solving chemistry problems, or engineering problems. Rather, they are chemistry and engineering and sociology and economic problems. They are best handled with a combination of depth of disciplinary knowledge and an ability to appreciate and understand, for instance, the economic forces and historic barriers that apply. Students in the Great Problems Seminars learn to work with each other on problems that they can all see as significant; where the answers are not found in the back of the book.  hey learn that for these complex problems–global health, sustainable development, energy and food supply—there is no silver bullet, but that smart people working together can come up with solutions to parts of the problem. Being a part of this grand experiment is exhilarating! I do love my job.

So, it is a very exciting time to be at WPI, with the start of this new freshman program, our recently created majors, and the growth of the life sciences. As well, it is an exciting time for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The addition of this professorship is one of many wonderful changes for us. The move of much of our research to the new Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center, with its superb facilities and the proximity of faculty in other life sciences departments, has resulted in the development of a stronger research culture and burgeoning collaborations. This facility has also increased our ability to attract top-notch faculty. This past year we tempted Dr. George Kaminski from Central Michigan University and he brought with him an active research group supported by significant funding. We are looking forward to more successful recruiting this year, as we are searching for an additional two faculty members, and the other life sciences departments are searching for another three, for a total of five new hires. These additional faculty members will further augment our areas of research strength, allowing us to enhance our stature as a research institution and invigorate our educational programming. Further, ongoing renovations of Goddard Hall will provide us next year with brand new, state of the art laboratories for our undergraduate educational programs. It is an exciting time to be the head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Much of that excitement and no small measure of satisfaction come from the opportunity to interact with a lot of wonderful people. WPI is an amazingly supportive place, and there are many here who have been my supporters. I’d like to thank, first, my department, and Provost Orr and President Berkey, who have entrusted the leadership of the CBC department to me. The work of the department in these exciting times is made possible by the tremendous support of our staff, who are a terrific team of hard working professionals. To my many colleagues here, thank you for supporting me in ways small and large. I have learned much from you, and could not have done much without you. Finally, I’d like to thank my family and particularly my husband, who has been supportive in many, many ways, not the least of which is as my personal management consultant—a job for which he is seriously underpaid!

Thank you all for being here to participate in our celebration of the wonderful gift given to WPI by John Metzger and his family.

October 15, 2008