Durst and O'Connell: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Tonight, The LSU College of Science is gearing up to celebrate the accomplishments of top LSU scientists during our 2018 College of Science Hall of Distinction ceremony. As part of the festivities, we are highlighting our honorees on The Pursuit blog. In this post, we are excited to introduce you to two more science pioneers. Read on to learn more about the honorees!

Dupont Durst. LSU.

Dupont Durst. LSU.

H. Dupont Durst is a biochemist who graduated from LSU with bachelor’s master’s degrees in 1965 and 1967, respectively. Following his graduation from LSU, he completed his doctorate degree at the University of Minnesota. For over 50 years he has immersed himself in the field of biochemistry and sought to solve real-world problems.

When asked to describe Dr. Durst in three words, Dr. Carol Taylor, Chair of LSU Department of Chemistry, says: "Innovative problem solver. He takes all the things he knows as a chemist and applies them to real world problems."

College of Science: Why did you pursue organic chemistry?

Dupont: For organic chemistry, once you understand what’s going on, it is a pleasure to visualize it. Also, organic chemistry is a discipline where your scientific efforts can be adapted to solve practical problems, such as with economical or medicinal results. I’m not only interested in the study of the science, but also the application of the science.

College of Science: What is one accomplishment that you are most proud of?

Dupont: I’ve been blessed by being involved in projects that turned out to have a substantial impact. While working for the government, I became involved in developing analytical techniques for very rapid and accurate measurements of hazardous materials in the environment. Starting in the early 2000’s, we developed technology that is widely used in law enforcement to determine a pill’s composition, such as heroin versus aspirin, in 2-3 seconds. Knowing rapidly whether a substance is a problem or not is very important when you’re dealing with something that’s immediately hazardous to health and the environment. I am very proud of these efforts, which have applications for environmental management.

College of Science: Your nominator Richard Gandour mentioned that you enjoyed working in chemical education, especially working to ensure that the students have the lab skills and techniques they need. Why are you such a proponent for chemical education?

Dupont: Experimental sciences like chemistry have two components. One is an intellectual component where you have to understand the basic science that underpins your discipline, but you also need the skills to execute your ideas. We often say, “Reduce the problem to practice."  The laboratory function of the teaching program is just as valuable as the lecture part. One without the other is not adequate. I have been a proponent of a very strong disciplinary part of chemistry being the laboratory and making sure that when people complete their education, they have the skills sets to immediately go into a job and know how to execute an idea.

College of Science: Who are some of your role models?

Dupont: As an undergraduate, I worked as a technician in the laboratory of Dr. William Patrick (known as Dr. Pat). I learned an enormous amount from him professionally as well as personally. He was a very impressive person. Without his personal and scientific advice, I probably wouldn’t be a chemist. My second role model is Professor Gerald Risinger, who was my preceptor for my senior project and for my master’s degree. Both of these mentors were incredible people to work with. Finally, when I went to the University of Minnesota, I worked for Professor Edward Leete. He was one of the best experimentalists I have ever seen. He taught me a number of techniques of how to actually execute an idea in the laboratory. Without those three men, I would have not been as successful as I have been.

I also had the advantage of good parents. My mother and father were stunning parents and were instrumental in keeping me straight during trying times. For that I will always appreciate their influence on me.

College of Science: After touring the Department of Chemistry this year, what are your impressions of the department since your time as a student?

Dupont: In 1960 when I arrived at LSU, the Department of Chemistry was located in Coates Hall, just one building. When I look at the campus today, I’m stunned at the increase in the physical infrastructure capability. The newest chemistry building is a stunning work of art with design and capability not only to do the science but also to have a pleasurable work experience.

College of Science: You established the H. Dupont Durst Graduate Award in Organic Chemistry here at LSU. Why did you establish the scholarship?

Dupont: We are all standing on the shoulders of giants and benefit from them. When I thought about all the advantages that LSU gave me, I thought that one way to give back was to give resources that encourage the next generations of chemists to excel.

College of Science: What makes Dr. Durst a great candidate for induction into the Hall of Distinction?

Carol Taylor: Dupont Durst is an excellent candidate as an alumnus with a very broad and distinguished career, both as a faculty member early on and for 30 years with US Army. In addition to being a chemist and an inventor, he’s been involved on the international stage in demilitarization of chemical warfare agents. Dupont is not just a great ambassador for LSU, he’s been a great ambassador on the world’s stage.

Life Lesson from Dupont: Find something that you love and work like heck to be as good as you can.

Robert O'Connell. LSU.

Robert O'Connell. LSU.

Emeritus Boyd Professor Dr. Robert O’Connell is originally from Ireland and received his undergraduate degree from the National University of Ireland Galway, which also awarded him a doctorate of science degree later on. After working four years as a telecommunications engineer, he came to the US in 1958 and got his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Notre Dame. In his 53-year career at LSU, Dr. O’Connell has made countless contributions to many areas of physics and astronomy.

LSU College of Science: What led you to LSU?

Robert: When I was in Ireland, I was working at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies as a postdoctoral researcher. While I was waiting to get an academic position, I heard from the US. LSU made a very attractive offer for an assistant professorship. I was looking at other possibilities, but a big advantage of coming here at the time was it was a warm place to live after experiencing the winters in Notre Dame.  

LSU College of Science: You have a more than 50 year relationship with LSU. What was it about LSU that moved you to stay here for this amount of time and establish roots here?

Robert: The LSU Department of Physics and Astronomy when I came here was quite small. The total faculty numbered a single dozen, which is now 5-6 times larger. It was very small but very friendly and welcoming. The department was also taking very concrete steps to make significant progress. Everything about the place was very positive and that enabled me to stay here.

LSU College of Science: Tell us about your contribution to the success of the space mission Gravity Probe B that was launched by NASA.

Robert: One of my first research projects at LSU was working with Bruce Barker from the University of Alabama. We were the people who did the first calculations of the two-body problem in general relativity for spinning bodies. Our work with Gravity Probe B also focused on a gyroscope, which of course was spinning. We were interested in measuring how much it had spun. The recent publications by Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) (Check out LSU’s work with LIGO!) and Virgo have used our paper as the forerunner of their calculations.

Dr. John DiTusa is the Chair of the LSU Department of Physics and Astronomy and has worked with O’Connell since he arrived here as an assistant professor back in 1994. He nominated Dr. O’Connell for this honor.

LSU College of Science: What is his most recognized work?

John: I think Dr. O’Connell’s most recognized work is his work on the quantum langevin equation. The quantum langevin equation is a way of describing nature where you’re trying to describe how a macroscopic particle responds to an enormous number of microscopic degrees of freedom. Because it’s so fundamental, it’s a real pillar of statistical mechanics that can be used in all sorts of different fields. His fundamental work in this area attracted over 400 citations, and that’s not even his most cited work. But I think it’s a really important piece of work that I’m sure he’s very proud of.

LSU College of Science: Why did you nominate Dr. O’Connell for induction into the HOD?

John: I nominated Robert O’Connell for induction into the Hall of Distinction because I think it’s important to recognize his 53 years of service to LSU. That’s incredible! It’s a lifetime of achievement and dedication to the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the College of Science and the University as a whole.

LSU College of Science: In your opinion what is Dr. O’Connell’s most recognized work?

Dr. Jorge Pullin, Horace Hern Chair in Theoretical Physics at LSU: Remarkably, he’s the only person I know, in fact, that has contributed in various subfields of physics, ranging from the motion of binary neutron stars like the ones that LIGO observed last year to noise in the instrument itself, to quantum mechanics to statistical mechanics. He has co-authored a review paper, which has close to 3,000 citations, with famous Nobel Prize winner Eugene Wigner, just to give you an example.

LSU College of Science: How has his work brought prestige to the Physics and Astronomy Department at LSU?

Jorge: Because many of his contributions are well-known in different subfields of physics, he is well-known. That has brought a lot of prestige to the department in ways that I don’t know if anyone else has.