Jamie Keller works at the juncture of chemistry and physicsThe race is on. The stakes are high. And Associate Professor of Chemistry James "Jamie" Keller thinks he may have found a shortcut to the finish line.
The contest in question is the quest to make light-driven computers. Keller has teamed up with Frank Peiris, the first occupant of Kenyon's Harvey Lodish Faculty Development Chair in the Natural Sciences and an assistant professor of physics, to find the right film for the optical switches on which the computers will depend.
"Everyone's in a race to come up with the best material to act as the main device component for these," says Keller, who works with his student assistants to characterize thin films manufactured by Peiris and his student research group.
Keller, a physical chemist with a specialization in laser spectroscopy, has been working at the juncture of physics and chemistry since his undergraduate days at Williams College. "I love making connections," says Keller, "connections between sciences, and connections between science and everything else. Students at Kenyon are so good at doing that. Since I work at the interface of two sciences, connections arise naturally."
The buildings in the College's brand-new natural-sciences quadrangle reflect this interconnectedness, Keller points out. Tomsich Hall, which houses Keller and the rest of the chemistry department, opened in the spring of 2001. Tomsich, along with the adjoining Hayes Hall (mathematics and physics), were designed to support the way sciences are taught at Kenyon, fostering close interaction between faculty members and students, mentoring, and collaborative research starting as early as the student's first year. The adjacent Higley Hall, home of the biology department, has gained new molecular biology facilities in its Fischman Wing, as well as a new greenhouse.
"The flow between disciplines is apparent in the flow of the buildings," says Keller. "This is what happens naturally in research. Now it can happen in teaching as well." The juncture where disciplines meet, he likes to point out, is where science happens, where progress is made.
"Kenyon is a place where students find they have no limits," Keller asserts. "Rather than becoming narrow specialists, they keep expanding, finding more and more ways to express themselves. I see it not only in the sciences but also in the arts, in athletics, everywhere."
Keller arrived at the College in the fall of 2000, after eight years as a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame. Last summer, he served as a mentor to three students, including a Summer Science Scholar. Recalling his own college years as a high point, he's happy to be back in a small liberal-arts college environment, working closely with undergraduates. Even with the intensive teaching requirements at Kenyon, he says he has more time to do research than he did at Notre Dame, where other responsibilities kept him from his lab.
Keller says he has found his niche at the College, where he teaches introductory chemistry, quantum chemistry, instrumental analysis, and advanced spectroscopy labs. Holder of a doctorate from the University of Chicago, where the chemistry and physics are famous for cooperating, he says he enjoys observing physicists' surprise to learn how much chemists can do, and how much they can ask. Chemists, too, he notes, are amazed at what they see when they cross the border between the two sciences. "I've lived at that boundary," says Keller, "so it doesn't surprise me much anymore. But it does please me."
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