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An Interview with Our Commencement Speaker: Dr. Sean Decatur, President of Kenyon College

Sean Decatur
Image Credit: John Noltner
May 29 2018

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In the News

Dr. Sean M. Decatur, President of Kenyon College, received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford in 1995.  Sean will return to campus this spring to speak at the 2018 Commencement Ceremony for the department of chemistry on Sunday, June 17, 2018. 

Your mother was a middle school math and science teacher growing up. Did she help inspire your love for teaching, education and learning?

Yes, definitely. We were a household where we did math problems around the dinner table and science projects around the house. That was an important part of growing up and certainly my inspiration for both studying science and eventually going into education.

When you enrolled at Swarthmore College, you wanted to major in engineering and later switched your major to chemistry. Why did you decide to make that change?

I had a wonderful chemistry professor in my first organic chemistry course. His name was Jim Hammons, and he took a lot of time to reach out to me. For a long time, I kept the comments he wrote on my final exam, which were very positive about the work I’d done in the class and on the exam. He invited me to be a teaching assistant in the organic chemistry lab the next year. That development of a close mentoring relationship with a faculty member was the thing that pushed me to study chemistry. I just developed an intense passion for it, but it really stemmed from that one organic chemistry class, which is one of the reasons why I’ve been committed to encouraging strong mentoring relationships between students and faculty. I have experienced firsthand how it can make a difference.

After you graduated from Swarthmore, you decided to come to Stanford to pursue your Ph.D. What made you decide to come to Stanford, and what were some of your first impressions of the school?

At some point while I was an undergraduate, I became interested in research questions that were on the interface between chemistry and biology, and also between chemistry, biology and physics. Stanford stood out as a place where interactions between folks in chemistry, applied physics, engineering and the medical school took place every day. There is good communication and collaboration between all those groups. Even geographically, those departments are all located close together so it’s possible to attend seminars and group meetings in other departments and engage across those boundaries. That was something that was very appealing to me.

Can you share some of your favorite memories or experiences as a student here in Professor Steve Boxer's laboratory?

Some of my favorite memories are the ways in which the Boxer group then, and I’m guessing the Boxer group still, engages and connects with different parts of campus. I was with a group of graduate students in the Boxer lab and the Fayer lab that were doing some experimental work at the free electron laser over in applied physics. I also worked with a group of students in a lab at the medical school that shared time on a NMR spectrometer geared towards protein studies. Some of my favorite memories are of staying up all night with colleagues in other groups in remote parts of campus watching data collect and talking with folks who are doing very interesting things in different areas. I learned a great deal from those experiences and valued them. Also, I remember the World Cup. There was a World Cup game hosted at Stanford while I was a grad student, which was also a pretty cool moment.

When you graduated from Stanford, what motivated you to pursue a career in higher education? Did you ever consider working in industry?

When I left Swarthmore, I imagined the rest of my career at a small liberal arts college. I really enjoyed the experience that I had as a student. I wanted to mentor students in the way that I feel I had been supported as an undergraduate. So after Stanford, I was focused at finding a job at a small liberal arts college or similar institution.

Where was your first job right out of graduate school?

I was able to go straight into a tenure- track faculty position at Mount Holyoke.

What were some of your major research interests there?

My research program evolved… it was using infrared spectroscopy to look at the secondary structure and dynamics of small peptides and model proteins. We developed an advanced approach called isotope-edited infrared spectroscopy. I was fortunate enough to be able to work with a great group of students, as well as a few postdocs over the years, with support from the NSF and NIH and some private foundations.

You later became chair of the department of chemistry at Mount Holyoke, and since then you’ve continued to take on greater and greater administrative responsibilities. What influenced you to pursue this career trajectory?

I became department chair almost by default. It was a rotating position at Mount Holyoke. However, I found that I really liked being able to have an impact on the student learning experience and curriculum beyond my own individual classes and students. I enjoyed thinking about how the whole department served the students and the student experience. That led to me moving from department chair to associate dean of the faculty, where I was able to think about the whole science division, how that group worked to try to support and improve the student learning experience. I found that I really like being able to think about education and institutional change on that level.

How did you manage to balance your passion for research, teaching and mentoring with your administrative duties?

I found that for most of my career, they tended to mesh quite well. Teaching and scholarship were good reminders to me why I went into an academic career in the first place. Even as an administrator, I found that it was important to be active in both of those areas. Since I’ve become a college president, it’s been harder to keep up a true research career. I’ve shut down my research lab, but I do still teach, and that’s something that’s really important to me. It’s an important reminder to me why I do the work that I do.

What classes do you teach now?

I teach a special topics seminar to junior and senior chemistry/biochemistry majors. The one I just wrapped up this seminar focused on chemical foundations and applications of bioluminescence.

In July 2013 you became president of Kenyon College. What have been some of your biggest priorities as a leader of the university?

The top two have been to work on recruiting, retaining and graduating not only an academically excellent student body but also a diverse student body. We are focused on expanding the diversity of Kenyon in terms of both racial-ethnic diversity and socio-economic diversity.

The second big thing is providing opportunities for students outside of the classroom to apply what they’re learning in the classroom. That includes expanding opportunities for students in the sciences to do research and expanding internship opportunities for students to work in industry. We have also developed some connections between Kenyon and Ohio State that help give some of our students the opportunity to study in fields or do research in fields that aren’t represented here at Kenyon.

How do you think your background as a scientist and chemist has affected your presidency and shaped these priorities?

It has been a great opportunity to remind folks that the natural sciences are a part of the larger liberal arts experience. Although Kenyon has long had strengths in the sciences … among our alums is the late Stanford professor Carl Djerassi … the college is known broadly as a literary and writing school. When I first came here, I often got the question: What is a chemist doing as the president of a school that is known for writing and literature? It has been a chance to spread the message that the sciences are an important part of the liberal arts and that success in a liberal arts education has to include a strong grounding in the sciences.

When was the last time you came to Stanford?

I came about three years ago shortly before Carl Djerassi passed away and attended a celebration on campus that included a reading of one of his plays. I later came back to the Bay Area for his memorial service, about two or three years ago, but I have always stayed in touch. Certainly, Steve and I stay in touch. I was really honored that Steve Boxer came out for my installation ceremony when I became president of Kenyon College.

What does it mean for you to give the commencement address to the department of chemistry?

First, it is a tremendous honor that I am still somewhat shocked about. I think my time at Stanford was very important in my own intellectual growth and development as an academic, so it’s great to be able to come back and make that connection. More specifically, and this is something I’ve talked a lot about, I think that my identity as a chemist has been important in my broader sense of how I look at the world. And so, I think it is particularly important and significant to be invited back by the chemistry department. I am really looking forward to it.

We’re equally excited to welcome you back. Just a final question: What small piece of advice can you give to the students who are about to graduate in June?

Probably the biggest piece of advice is that one’s long-term career path can take many unexpected turns. I think being prepared for that, and for interesting opportunities, is important. I was not anticipating becoming a college president, and certainly not at this point in my career, but it’s an example of the types of opportunities that will await graduates in the future.