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Creating a dynamic educational experience

A conversation with JMU chemistry professor Dan Downey ('75), who couples an invigorating teaching style with research into real-world problems

Chemistry professor Dan Downey ('75)

Chemistry professor Dan Downey ('75)

You are a JMU grad. When did you come back to Madison to teach, and why did you make that decision?

Downey: I returned in 1985. JMU was already being recognized as a leading institution in undergraduate education at least in the south and east with a developing national reputation. I wanted to work at an institution where both teaching and research were valued, not just research. JMU was the best move I have ever made.

Undergraduate research provides lifelong skills

I came here with the mindset that I would champion the value of undergraduate research in the education of students in science and other disciplines. It is not uncommon for students to spend the first several college years in large introductory courses and become disillusioned. I think the undergraduate research experience is a method of teaching; like pure Socratian teaching with the student in a close mentor relationship with the faculty member. Aside from specific knowledge gained from any given project, this discovery-based problem-solving approach to learning provides the student with lifelong learning skills that he or she will use throughout his or her career.

Environmental focus

You and your students have worked on a number of acid rain projects. Can you tell us more about them?

Downey's students assist in field monitoring and lab analyses of local streams

Downey's students assist in field monitoring and lab analyses of local streams

Downey: In the 1980s, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program was examining the extent to which streams were degraded by acid rain. In 1986 we consulted with the U.S. Forest Service and identified a stream in Shenandoah County where we began a project of long-term field monitoring and lab analyses that continues today -- over 20 years of data collection.

As a follow-up to the monitoring of acid levels in streams, I began thinking whether the acidity could be mitigated by addition of a base material to the stream water. At the time some scientists said stream liming was not feasible, but my research group carefully studied particle size, stream flow regimes, and gradient and other factors to come up with a method to temporarily neutralize acidity in headwater streams. In 1989 we limed a stream and saw significant biological and water chemistry responses. Our method has now been used in more than a dozen streams in Virginia and is being used in other states as well. In working on the various projects we have developed strong ties to both the U.S. Forest Service National Forests in Virginia and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Your efforts in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at JMU have been crucial from the start. Can you describe the program and its importance to the students that participate?

The National Science Foundation created the REU, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, to retain students in science so that the nation's needs for scientists would be met in the 21st century. The basis of the REU program was that discipline-oriented summer sites would be created at leading research institutions where sophomore- or junior-level undergraduates would go to do research, and nothing else, for two and a half months, the idea being that immersion in research was a means of achieving interest and retention in science. As it turned out, REU has been one of the most productive programs NSF ever sponsored.

Undergraduate students performing research in Downey's environmental analytical chemistry lab.

Undergraduate students performing research in Downey's environmental analytical chemistry lab.

In 1989, I prepared a proposal that indicated that JMU would be a great site for REU as we had great faculty, good lab facilities and were well situated geographically for attracting participants from the Appalachian region. JMU also provided a significant commitment of institutional support. The first chemistry site grant was funded in 1990, and we began the summer research program, which has continued to the present year.

The REU has provided great opportunities for undergraduate research in our department--198 summer students supported to date. In addition the existence of REU has, in part, enabled us to gain other grants, an additional 208 summer students supported since 1990.

Thanks to the efforts of my colleagues Dr. Gina MacDonald in chemistry and Dr. Brenda Seal in communication sciences and disorders, we have extended the summer research program to include students who are deaf. We have also been pleased to see materials science, biology and math all gaining REU site funding, which makes the JMU College of Science and Mathematics one of the few in the nation with this many multiple REU summer sites.

Taking pride in students

You have an impressive list of professional accomplishments. Is there anything you are most proud of?

Downey: In working with students in the laboratory and in the field as a team doing research, one develops a bond that is beyond the ordinary professor/student interaction typical of a classroom. In fact, I often jokingly refer to my research students as my "chemical" sons and daughters. After graduation, I try to maintain contact with as many as possible. Some have gone on to achieve Ph.D.s themselves and others work as teachers, dentists, physicians, lab-bench chemists or stay-at-home moms. Whatever they have done, I am proud of their accomplishments. Professionally, that is what is most important to me.

To learn more about the professor and undergraduate research opportunities at JMU, contact Downey at downeydm@jmu.edu.