c/o T. David Westmoreland

c/o T. David Westmoreland

At his office in the southeast corner of Hall-Atwater Laboratories, Associate Professor of Chemistry T. David Westmoreland offered a bit of his time to meet with The Argus. Now in his 33rd year of teaching at the University, Westmoreland commented on recent changes in the Chemistry Department and new faculty’s research. To the relief of Argus readers, Professor Westmoreland offered a simplified explanation of his research, involving MRI contrast agents. 

In addition to chemistry, Westmoreland is a fan of classical music and a self-proclaimed mediocre oboist (though we’d have to see for ourselves). He was also involved with the early days of the Big Drop, an event where science students throw a variety of items off of the Exley Science Center roof. And what is Westmoreland’s favorite chemical? Read on to find out more!

The Argus: What was your professional life like before teaching? What attracted you to Wesleyan?

T. David Westmoreland: Well, it’s not that interesting. I went and did an undergraduate degree [in] chemistry, went off to graduate school, did a couple of postdocs, and then came to Wesleyan. 

I liked the idea of being in academics rather than industry. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. This seemed like a great mix between teaching and research. I took a year of leave and was at Yale for a year a long time ago, but otherwise, I’ve only taught at Wesleyan.

A: And how many years have you worked here?

TDW: I started here in the fall of 1989, so I think I’m starting my 33rd year, something like that.

A: That’s impressive!

TDW: It’s actually very frightening!

A: Considering that you aren’t new to the Chemistry Department, how have you seen it, and Wesleyan, evolve during your time here? 

TDW: Chemistry as a field has evolved tremendously, as you might imagine. We have had a bunch of retirements in the last decade and a half. So almost half to two-thirds of the faculty have joined the department since then, and it is now a much younger department. The new people are just fantastic and doing wonderful things and are remarkable.

A: How do you adapt your research and classes as new developments in chemistry arise?

TDW: We of course incorporate it. There are other people working on the same sort of things we do, so it’s always interesting to read their papers and think about what we’re doing, and how it relates. And when it’s appropriate, yes, I incorporate current research into classes.

A: What is your current research focused on?

TDW: I’m an inorganic chemist, and the focus at the moment is contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Nearly 50% of MRIs are done in clinics, where patients are injected with a contrast agent, which of course increases the contrast in them. These are all inorganic materials.

Our latest work has been on understanding the relationship between the stabilities of these contrast agents and their contrast properties. We are also looking at some new types of contrasts with mechanisms of action that are not well understood.

A: Is the goal to create safer agents?

TDW: That’s one aspect. The other is to try to understand the chemistry that goes on in some of the established contrast agents, and to use that as the basis for designing new ones. 

A: Did your interests always lie in the sciences? Do you have other interests?

TDW: Yes, I was always going to be a chemist. Mostly through the influence of a high school chemistry teacher. 

And sure! I have outside interests and scientific interests. I’ve always been interested in adjacent sciences: physics, a little bit of biology, but not much. I have interests in music, American history, etc. I am a very bad oboist, I take lessons with [Oboe Instructor] Libby van Cleve. In fact, Libby van Cleve, [Adjunct Associate Professor of Music] Nadya Potemkina, the orchestra conductor, and I have been putting together a series of concerts of Bach cantatas each semester. We are going to have the 10th one on Nov. 4. It’s a wonderful group because it’s students, faculty, and community members that come together to do this concert. It’s just a really fun thing that Wesleyan offers.

A: I understand you were the chair of the Chemistry Department recently—

TDW: Oh dear. 

A: Oh, is this a difficult subject?

TDW: Well, in a tongue-in-cheek way, whenever anyone in the department is upset about something, you find out about it as a chair. There’s often not that much you can do. A lot of it is dealing with the standard administrative things: setting up the curriculum, approving people who want to add the major, [and] anything unusual that needs to be dealt with as well. Generally, promotion and tenure cases in the department, any communication with the administration at a higher level, managing the department finances, the personnel in the department, searches, etc., all go through the chair. It’s a horrible job.

A: And this is all while you are teaching and in the lab?

TDW: Yes. You get no course relief when you’re in the sciences. 

A: Can you detail the origins of the Big Drop?

TDW: The Big Drop started a number of years ago when I was the director of WesMASS [Wesleyan Mathematics and Science Scholars]. It occurred to us that we needed some celebratory thing to do at the end of the semester, so I asked [Director of Environmental Services] Bill Nelligan, our Health and Safety Officer for the University, whether we could throw things off the top of Exley. He said yes. 

So that’s what we do on the last day of classes in the spring. WesMASS throws things like watermelons, computers, and bouncy balls off the roof of Exley, and in between things coming off the roof, chemistry majors do dramatic demonstrations, mostly involving fire and explosions on the ground, for the crowd.

The other thing that we do—and I think there have been stories in The Argus before about it—is in the spring. I run a student forum, [“The Science and Art of Chemical Demonstrations”]. It’s a group of students that learn how to perform and present demonstrations. We usually do a big chemistry magic show at WesFest. They do it at Big Drop. They do chemistry demonstrations, at least pre-COVID, at local schools and try to engage some high school students. That’s always been a fun course. It’s called Blow Things up for Course Credit. They just did a presentation for the trustees a week ago, on Saturday [Sept. 24], so that was a lot of fun.

A: Is there any scientific basis to dropping things off the roof? Any calculations being taken?

TDW: Well, it’s just fun to see what happens when they hit! College is a place where you should be able to do things that you were not allowed to do before, and you won’t be able to do after. This is where we let people do things that they won’t get another chance to do. 

A: Do you have a favorite chemical, and why is it your favorite?

TDW: Caffeine! Without caffeine, I would have retired long ago. 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carolyn Neugarten can be reached at cneugarten@wesleyan.edu.

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