Chemistry Chair Seeks to 'Make a Difference' Across the Board

University of Virginia chemistry department chair W. Dean Harman says his goal as a chemist, teacher and departmental leader is to “make a difference in people’s lives.”

That difference could be through the development of chemical compounds that ease the symptoms of disease. Or it could be by helping students realize their potential for making meaningful discoveries. Or it may be through administrative actions that help the Department of Chemistry excel.

For Harman, it is all of those things, and then some.

He came to UVA in 1989 as an assistant professor and since has guided more than 30 graduate students to Ph.D.s and careers in academia, industry and government. Each of those students, through Harman’s gentle leadership, has made discoveries that can and do change lives through better chemistry.

Harman also has taught about 7,000 undergraduates, many of whom have gone on to realize their potential as graduate students at UVA and other top universities.

Harman now is guiding his department through a full-scale renovation and modernization of the Chemistry Building.

He recently discussed his work with UVA Today.

Q. What drives you?

A. Teaching and mentoring are what drive me. I really want to make a difference in people’s lives – that’s not just a given answer. I am excited about science and what it offers society and I enjoy using that excitement to help motivate my students.

I’ve worked one-on-one with every one of my graduate students and helped shape their careers. I’ve been able to know them on a level deeper than what you get in a regular classroom. It’s a very special experience to be able to use my knowledge and experience to help them navigate through the discoveries that build careers.

Q. Did anyone do the same for you as you built your own career?

A. When I look at the critical moments in my life, there were a handful of really important people who mentored me – my parents, advisers, close friends, professors. They made me, and I’m in their debt. Because of them, it is in the core of my being that I want to help others.

My Ph.D. mentor at Stanford was Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Henry Taube, who guided me and played a big role in making me the researcher and teacher that I am today.

Q. When you mentor, what do you do to bring out the best in people?

A. I try to lead by example, and foster curiosity by creating an environment that encourages curiosity and creativity. Henry Taube never told me to do this or that; instead, he gave me the freedom to chase my curiosity, to try new things, to fail and try new ways and see what happens. That is very empowering, it leads to unexpected new discoveries, and it is what I try to do to bring out the best in my students – I send them on a treasure hunt of sorts with the encouragement to explore with confidence.

Q. What do you and your students focus on in your lab?

A. We work to develop new generations of chemical tools by manipulating molecules that, down the road, may lead to new pharmaceuticals for treating a range of diseases. We develop new methods for putting together molecular structures that don’t exist in nature, and we modify and optimize these chemicals. This work contributes to molecular libraries; adding compounds that in the future may have biological applications. This is how the development of medicines works – new compounds are discovered in nature or created in the lab and then optimized for possible uses.

Q. You became chair of the chemistry department in 2011. Describe that experience.

A. It is both rewarding and challenging in ways I never thought possible when I was only conducting research and teaching. I’ve found that serving as chair requires a very different skillset than what I developed while doing those other activities. I love working with people, so it’s exciting to help develop individual careers and to grow a department.

We’ve hired eight new professors in the last three years, and will be bringing in more. I look forward to coming to work each day and working with this young energy as we plan out our destiny.

We also are embarking on a total renovation of our building, which will take two years, and I look forward to seeing that through. It’s going to be spectacular!