A tribute to a fine teacher

Dan Harris explains the periodic table to his toddler grandson.
Dan Harris

In 2007 Daniel Harris, ’68 (Course V) and his wife, Sally Harris, established a graduate fellowship in honor of Professor Daniel S. Kemp.

Two generations of the Harris family were educated at MIT. Dan (Course V ’68), David (Courses VI and XVIII and MEng ’94) and Doug (Courses III and V ’98) each went on to earn Ph.D. at other institutions. Dan is a Senior Scientist and Esteemed Fellow at the Naval Air Systems Command at China Lake CA and has written a series of widely used analytical chemistry textbooks. David is Professor of Engineering at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont CA. Doug is a research chemist at Cytec in Stamford CT. Dan and Doug enrolled in organic chemistry taught by Dan Kemp during their first year at MIT.

During the summer of 2007, Liz McGrath, Communications and Development Coordinator for the Department of Chemistry,  interviewed Dan and Doug to learn why they wanted to honor Professor Daniel S. Kemp with a fellowship in his name.

LMcG: Most people can remember one teacher above others from kindergarten through college who stands out as being the most inspiring and influential of all his or her educators. Am I correct in suggesting that Professor Dan Kemp falls into this category for both of you?

Doug: I never had any teacher with Kemp’s kind of stage presence. He could project his voice all the way to the back of 10-250 (but I was not sitting in the back). He could explain organic chemistry in a logical fashion that I still appreciate and utilize. I still have my 5.12 bible (notes) at work. Answers to the questions on the test were generally obvious to me after his clear explanations during lecture. Organic chemistry made sense from the start.

Dan: I had several outstanding teachers and Dan Kemp was right up there with the best. Organic chemistry was a magical course for me because I took it at my most impressionable time as a first-years in 1965. Dan Kemp was teaching a new curriculum with a groundbreaking new textbook by Roberts and Caserio. I did not appreciate just how groundbreaking that textbook was in reaction mechanisms and spectroscopy until years later. It is a testament to his teaching goals that Kemp chose that book when it was new. I also had the unique experience of sitting next to Professor Avery Ashdown (for whom Ashdown House is named) in the front row of 10-250 at every lecture. Professor Ashdown was quite old and barely able to amble down the infinite corridor. But he religiously attended every organic chemistry lecture.

LMcG: Would you tell me a little about his teaching methods that you found so inspiring?

Doug: He had good blackboard technique and handed out impeccable lecture notes. I felt like he was painting a masterpiece in the front of 10-250.

Dan: Lectures were well planned for the hour and masterfully executed to end on time with a logical conclusion. His explanations were clear and interesting. He was intensely involved in the labs. His lab lectures explained why we were carrying out the steps that we did in the lab. He circulated through the lab to see how the experiments were going and how we were doing. My partners and I were getting personal instruction in gas chromatography from Dan at that memorable moment in 1965 “when the lights went out in Massachusetts” (immortalized in the Bee Gees song of 1969).

LMcG: You and Doug went on to pursue careers as Research Scientists. Do you think your experiences as students in Kemp’s classroom helped to determine your future scientific careers?

Doug: I entered MIT expecting to be in courses V, VIII, and XVIII. After taking Kemp’s course in my first year, I realized that chemistry was my true passion. I also took a first-year seminar in blacksmithing, which started my path to course III as my second major.

Dan: I came to MIT expecting to be a biochemistry major. After a year of organic chemistry, which I loved, I found the introductory biology in my second year to be too shallow in chemical content to suit my interests. I realized then that chemistry would be my major.

LMcG: Do you have additional fond memories of MIT that you would like to share?

Doug: I greatly appreciated the “drink from the fire hose” mentality at MIT. My advisor was always supportive of my attempts to cram many hard classes into my busy schedule. I enjoyed taking graduate classes as an undergraduate. I even have fond memories of my third, and final year at the ‘tute. I had realized that I was just 14 classes away from graduation. If I cranked open the fire hydrant, I thought I could finish all of the coursework. The registrar did not complain that I scheduled three classes at the same time during the Fall term. Thanks to some fortunate guesses on my 5.61 (quantum) tests, I even managed to pass all of the classes. My hardest class that year was Chinese. I remember spending as much time practicing characters as I spent doing all of my other problem sets combined. Coincidentally, that is the class that I have found most useful in my post-MIT life. Without that class, I wouldn’t have traveled to Beijing and met Zhang Juping, my wife. I speak “Chinglish” at home and have many opportunities to use Chinese at work.

I also have fond memories of my UROP mentor, Professor Anne Mayes. I try to work for the best and brightest, and she certainly qualifies in both categories! She asked me to conduct air-sensitive polymer synthesis. I remember tooling away in the lab at night on a 4th of July. I took a break, looked out the window of Building 13, and saw the fireworks on the other side of the river. My living anionic polymerization stayed alive, making it a perfect night. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the graduate students and postdocs in her research group. I wish Anne the best in her retirement.

Dan: MIT bent over backward to accommodate us and encouraged us to work to our capacity. In my first year, many more students signed up for Fortran programming than there were sections to handle. Instead of saying “sorry, try again next year,” MIT recruited more instructors and opened enough sections to accommodate the demand. I began taking significant overloads in my first year because that was my comfortable pace. My advisor was willing to sign off because I demonstrated that I could handle the work. In my second year, I was allowed to enroll in a graduate level course in organic chemistry. In my later career, I taught at other schools where students were not permitted to work up to their capacity and where a filled class meant that you had to wait another year for an opening.

Chemistry labs were open to us 24/7. In fact, there were no doors on the 4th floor lab in Building 4. I recognize that open labs violate every current safety practice, but I truly appreciated the opportunity and trust that was afforded to us.

I came in with the class of ’69, whose graduation requirements had been radically changed from those of previous classes. In my second year, I realized that I was on course to graduate in 3 years. Then I learned that to graduate with the class of ’68 I was supposed to meet the requirements of ’68, not those of ’69. A sympathetic administrator sat down with me and said “OK, let’s substitute this course you took for that requirement. Let’s substitute this other course for the next requirement….” And so I graduated by fulfilling requirements of my incoming class, not those of the previous class.

If you will humor me a little longer, I’ll tell you about my first intramural football game played for the Ashdown House dining staff in my second week at MIT. Our team had done well in the previous year and, therefore, played in the top division against “the Betas” on opening day. I was a scrawny first-year, but could run pretty well, and was declared a running back. I received the opening kickoff. Before me, I watched our front line of big blockers veer to the right, as called in the huddle, to form a wall for me. Seeing the other team also running to my right, I ran to the left! Devoid of blockers, I was clobbered, fumbled, and the Betas scored a touchdown on their kickoff to us. They went on to beat us something like 72-0.