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A fond farewell to Professor of Chemistry James Duncan

August 26, 2014

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After 37 years at Lewis & Clark, Professor of Chemistry James Duncan will retire at the end of this month. The campus community is invited to celebrate his contributions on Saturday, November 1, during Homecoming and Family Weekend.

In the following Q&A, Jim shares his shares his fondest memories and parting words.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment during your career?

I can’t point to a single accomplishment, but perhaps overall it would be that I believe I thoroughly challenged all of my students and through passionate teaching and ready availability got most of them to really enjoy organic chemistry. It was also here at Lewis & Clark that I developed (dare I say “pioneered!”), and refined over 37 years, a rather unique approach to teaching organic chemistry that placed a heavy emphasis on weekly conferences. Taught in small sections with all the students working on the same problems at the same time at blackboards erected entirely around rather large rooms, these conferences had the students attempt to discover for themselves new concepts before they were covered in lecture or encountered in textbooks. While this required students to have become reasonably proficient with previously covered material, I think it was less intimidating to them than if they had been asked to prepare a known specific topic to discuss—one of the reasons that I think participation (often of an enthusiastic nature) was very high. Finally I believe I encouraged a high level of independence in my research students to the point that many of them became worthy coauthors with me on publications in top chemistry journals, occasionally even as first authors. 

What will you miss most about Lewis & Clark?

I will miss the day-to-day teaching and working closely with students in my office. I’ll particularly miss teaching my favorite course—Organic Chemistry—and collaborating with students on research projects.  However I’m glad to be done writing exams as well as grading both exams and laboratory reports!

Do you have a favorite memory from your years at Lewis & Clark?

Not just one, but I certainly remember how happy I was for my research students when they won noteworthy awards such as Goldwater Scholarships and our own Rena Ratte Award.

What are your plans for retirement?

Given that I’m currently busy focusing on my last summer of research with students, and in writing manuscripts on my students’ results, I haven’t given it sufficient thought to date.  However, a large part of it will involve world travel (I’ll be in Moscow and St. Petersburg with a tour group in August) and spending more time pursuing my passion for photography.

Do you have any parting words for future Lewis & Clark chemistry majors?

I would encourage them to get involved in research with faculty, if at all possible, and as early as they can, as one of the best ways to develop critical reasoning skills.