25 Years @ Midd with Jeff Byers

Jeff Byers, Philip Battell/Sarah Stewart Professor of Chemistry was inducted into the 25 year club last spring. In this post Jeff shares his experiences working in the Chemistry and Biochemistry department, the evolution of his research, and his appreciation of our surroundings as an avid mountain lover and endurance athlete. If you have ever read the Middlebury Trailrunner blog, then you have met Jeff. (If you haven’t – what are you waiting for – check it out!) Read on to learn more about a talented and dedicated member of our faculty, and the excitement that a Chemistry classroom contains. (Spoiler alert – there is a reason why there is fire safety equipment in those labs!)

What did you do prior to work at Middlebury College and where were you located?

I was a postdoctoral research fellow and part time instructor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.  And I skied.  A lot.

What job titles have you held while working at Middlebury?

Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor,  Department Chair, Philip Battell and Sarah Stewart Professor of Chemistry

Take us back to your first year as an employee at the College. What were the most significant things happening in your life outside of work then? 

It was all so sudden – I interviewed for the job on August 1, was offered the job a week later, and finished teaching a course in Utah at the end of August.  I didn’t have a car fit to drive back across the country, so I had to buy a pickup truck and stuff it full of all my belongings worthy of transport.  I showed up in Vermont the night before the first faculty meeting (held at Kirk at that time), and glimpsed the textbook that I would be teaching organic chemistry from for the first time that afternoon.  It was also a shock, when I went running into the office of our department secretary, Joyce McAllister, a few hours before my first mid-term exam, desperately looking for the Xerox machine.  She laughed and pointed to her hand crank mimeograph machine, the likes of which I had not seen since Jr High School.  Other than that, and the fact that I lived in 4 different apartments over the course of the year, life was pretty simple as a bachelor.  As far as work goes, I wrote and submitted several research proposals, and lucked out, getting funded by The Research Corporation on the first try.  None of the chemistry that I proposed worked, but my mistakes led eventually to the projects that got my research career on track.  I also hired three students to work in my lab that summer.  Life outside of work?  I was too busy to have much of that, but was too happy to notice.

What are the most significant things happening in your life outside of work now (that you’d like to share)?

My life with my wife Cathy and my two teenage daughters , Emily and Sara, keeps me quite busy.  I have been really enjoying getting back into my piano playing over the last few years, as my daughters’ accompanist in various performances.  I also am enjoying the work associated with my position on the Executive Board  of the Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society, which allows me to give back to the profession which has treated me quite well.

A field path on the Bread Loaf campus in Vermont

Have your interests/hobbies/athletic endeavors changed over the past 25 years? Have any of these been influenced by your work at the College or due to your association with others who work here?

My interests actually haven’t changed much, except in response to the occasional injury and inevitable slowing of middle age.  I came here as an avid mountain lover and endurance athlete, and those activities still are a big part of my life.  I have been authoring a blog called The Middlebury Trailrunner for a few years,  which I know other runners look to for off the beaten path running suggestions.  I still enjoy the campus classical music scene.

What is your fondest memory or experience that you’ve had while working at Middlebury?

Only one?  I am not sure if “fond” is the best word for one of my most memorable experiences.  I almost burned down BiHall in the course of a classroom demonstration during the first class I ever taught in BiHall 216 when we had been in the building about a week.  I probably shouldn’t put the details in print, but let it suffice to say that it  involved an unanticipated flamethrower and loss of hair (mine, not my students).

Many people change jobs/careers multiple times in their working life. Something must have kept you here for 25 years. Is it anything that you can put into words?

Middlebury is a wonderful town to raise a family in, and I also feel quite fortunate to be doing the kind of work I dreamed of as a graduate student, while surrounded by the best hiking and skiing in the Northeast.

What are your plans for the next 25 years?

I have long enjoyed being involved with funding agencies, and would love to spend a year’s sabbatical working as a rotator at the National Science Foundation.  I am in the process of phasing out my research activities in the area of radicals in organic synthesis where I was active for the last 25 years, and have begun a series of projects in nanotechnology, looking to develop new materials for molecular wires and organic semiconductors.  Since I am already an Adirondack 46’er and a member of the New Hampshire 4000 Footer Club, I will hopefully have the time to climb the 4000 ft peaks in Maine to gain membership in the Northeast 4000 footer club.  I would also love to do some travelling with my wife Cathy, without having to tie it into a chemistry conference.

Skiers ride the Worth Mountain ski lift on a snowy January day at the Snow Bowl.

Do you have a favorite place on campus?

I have had countless  “pinch me, is this real?” moments while skiing at Bread Loaf and the Snow Bowl.

Is there any person on campus (or retiree, former employer) that mentored you, or you feel helped you grow into your job, grow to enjoy your work and your time at the College?

Emeritus Professor Bob Gleason in his role as Department Chair and Dean of the Faculty supported my research and teaching despite the fact that I was a very young and hyperactive Assistant Professor who didn’t always want to do things the way he envisioned they should be done.  He was a great colleague, and a wise senior mentor when I needed it.

If you could give one piece of advice to a new employee at Middlebury, what would it be.

Simple truths always sounds so trite.  Anything I would say here would fit that description.

Is there anything else that you would like to share about your time at Middlebury?

If teachers live vicariously through the successes of their students,  I am living very  well.