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Q&A: Fast 5 with Chem Professor Frank Dunnivant

A quick conversation with “The Nomadic Scientist” on lessons from a vibrant career

By Heidi Pitts ’01

Frank Dunnivant in their office surrounded by plants.

Professor of Chemistry Frank Dunnivant has done many things over the years: studying heavy metals in the soil/groundwater systems at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, investigating hazardous waste landfills in Switzerland and testing the Snake River Plain Aquifer for radioactive pollutants that could impact Idaho farmers. Despite starting out as a nomadic scientist, returning to his first love—teaching—has kept Dunnivant at Whitman for the past 24 years. We recently sat down with him for five questions about what he’s learned throughout his 44-year career.

1. Why has your career focused on the environment?

I was an environmentalist from birth! I was raised a farm boy and could see that there was an imbalance between people and how we steward the Earth’s resources. At that time people called environmentalism “just some hippie fad” but I knew it would be a concern as long as people survive and given our ever-increasing population.

2. How has your teaching style evolved?

I started out using PowerPoint the wrong way in my lectures, and it wasn’t pretty. So I’ve grown more interactive, sharing examples from my real-world experiences to help students understand what they are learning and how to apply it. My lectures include a lot of stories, so much so that my students affectionately call my upper-level classes “Story Time With Frank.”

3. You’ve co-authored articles with 37 students. What do you appreciate about the student-faculty research process?

First and foremost, it teaches students to be independent and critical thinkers, which is essential whether they go on to graduate school or into a job. They also get intensive training with laboratory equipment. We have a phenomenal collection of instruments that students build proficiency in using.

4. You have said you don’t intend to retire from teaching and “will die with the chalk in my hand.” Why?

My work gives me a reason to get up in the morning—I love what I do, and I love the people I work with. The Chemistry Department faculty are like a family; we celebrate each other’s successes, share meals and our kids play together. And I get to wear Birkenstocks and tie-dye!

5. What advice would you give to students preparing to start their careers?

The world outside of academia is a dynamic place. Get a job, learn the most that you can from that job, and then move on to a new, fun challenge. Always keep learning!

Published on May 24, 2024
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