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In Memoriam: Robert E. Connors, Longtime Professor of Chemistry

July 21, 2015
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Robert Connors, who taught chemistry at WPI for nearly four decades and maintained an active research program in spectroscopy and photophysics, died July 16, 2015. He was 69.

Connors earned a BS in chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1967 and a PhD at Northeastern University in 1972. He held a postdoctoral appointment at Boston University, where he also served as a research scientist, before joining the WPI faculty in 1976, a few years after the Institute fully implemented its groundbreaking undergraduate program, the WPI Plan.

Just a year after arriving at WPI, he became the fourth faculty member to be appointed the Leonard P. Kinnicutt Assistant Professor of Chemistry, an honor named for a beloved WPI chemistry professor and internationally recognized expert in sanitary chemistry. Connors, who held the professorship until 1980, was selected because of "his potential for outstanding teaching and research."

In his laboratory in Goddard Hall, Connors led a research team that used the techniques of high-resolution spectroscopy and molecular modeling to explore the physical properties of inorganic and organic molecules by studying the light they emit as they settle back down from excited states to their ground states. "My group is concerned with understanding the electronic and structural factors that govern the absorption of light by a molecule, the nature of the excited electronic states produced, and the rates and efficiencies of subsequent radiative and nonradiative decay processes," he explained on his website.

His research collaborators were as likely to be undergraduates completing Major Qualifying Projects (MQPs) as graduate students, and he enjoyed exposing undergraduate chemistry majors to the excitement of working in a laboratory where the worlds of chemistry, physics, and biology often came together in novel ways. His work with undergraduates won him his department's MQP Advisor Award four times, in 1984, 2009, 2010, and 2011. "Working in the laboratory with undergraduate and graduate students on original research projects is a special thrill for me," he said.

As a teacher, Connor relished the challenge of helping students grasp complex concepts. "The challenge is to make this material accessible to all by cutting through the mathematics and focusing on the central principles that will be important as the students move forward in their careers as scientists," he wrote.

His work in the classroom won him the respect of his students and his colleagues, noted Arne Gericke, head of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, in a message to the WPI community. "Highly regarded by his students, Bob was an outstanding teacher who deeply cared for their success and well-being," he noted. In 2011 Connors was named to the Irish Education 100, an honor bestowed by the Irish Voice newspaper on Americans of Irish descent for excellence in university education.

Connor also enjoyed sharing his enthusiasm for scientific exploration with younger students as a faculty member in WPI's Frontiers program. Designed for gifted high school students, the program exposed students to the leading edges of science, mathematics, and engineering. Connors spent several summers immersing Frontiers students in laboratory research in chemistry.

He was member of Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Phi Kappa Phi honor society.

He is survived by Carolyn Delude, his wife of 35 years, a son and a daughter, a brother, and several nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his parents, Joseph and Virginia (Hughes) Connors.

In recognition of his many contributions to the university, the WPI Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has established the Robert E. Connors Award for outstanding undergraduate student achievement in physical chemistry. Contributions to the award fund may be sent to Gift Recording, WPI, 100 Institute Road, Worcester, MA 01609

In addition, memorial contributions may be made the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Neuro-Oncolgy Research, 450 Brookline Ave., Boston, MA, 02115.

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