Our Stories

Andrew Duncan: From Legos to Molecules

Andrew Duncan knew he wanted to be a chemist before he even understood what it meant. Duncan looked up to his grandfather, who was a chemist working for DuPont, so as a child he decided he also would be a chemist.

Of course, there also was his obsession with Legos. "The type of chemistry that I do is synthetic, essentially building molecules," Duncan says. "As a kid I liked building with Legos, so maybe there was a connection."

He still describes what he does as "playing with very small Legos," but Duncan's work has come much further than what he imagined as a child. Duncan is joining Willamette's chemistry department this fall as an assistant professor, and he's not coming in quietly -- he is a recipient of a $30,000 unrestricted research grant from The Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation. The Faculty Start-Up Award helps new faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions initiate their independent research programs in chemistry-related fields.

Duncan is one of only seven faculty members nationwide to receive the grant. The award helps Duncan clear a hurdle he wasn't sure he could accomplish this early in his career: getting his research funded. "I already had some experience teaching," he says, referring to his two years as a visiting professor at other colleges. "But I've never had to get a completely independent research grant funded. That was one of the things I worried about the most starting this part of my career -- will I be able to get anyone to give me any money?"

Other chemistry faculty members are happy for Duncan, according to department chairperson Chuck Williamson, and also are excited that the grant could fund instruments that could be used by several researchers. But the honor means more than that, Williamson says. "Just the fact that Willamette was able to hire someone who won this award speaks well of the University and the chemistry department, too," he says. "There were only seven of these awarded across the country, so that means we're in good stead."

Duncan received his bachelor of arts degree in chemistry from Middlebury College and his PhD in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. His two areas of interest are organic and organometallic chemistry. The first refers to the study of compounds primarily composed of carbon; the second examines compounds that contain a bond between a carbon atom and a metal atom.

He has five years to spend his Faculty Start-Up Award, and the stated topic of his research sounds a bit complex: "A series of sugar-derived heterocycles will be synthesized and used as organocatalysts for the kinetic resolution of carbinols." When asked to put his work into layman's terms, Duncan responds by holding up his hands to examine them -- they both seem identical, he says, but rather than being exactly the same, they are mirror images. Many molecules have a similar mirror-image relationship, and to synthesize a compound as only its left- or right-handed form is a significant challenge, he says.

Duncan's research is relevant to the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, where molecular "handedness" plays an important role in the interactions of therapeutic compounds with DNA and enzymes in the body. Administering a mixture of left- and right-handed forms of a drug is unsafe, he says, and can lead to serious negative side effects. "We're trying to find a more efficient, faster, cheaper, easier way to create single-handed forms of drug molecules," he says.

Duncan is excited about the possibilities for his research grant -- at the very least, he'll be able to buy basic supplies for the next five years, he says. And now that he is an established chemist, his reasons for being in the field are a bit more complex than his initial plan to follow his grandfather's footsteps. "I find molecular events intrinsically interesting," he says. "I'm interested in the transformations of molecules -- taking two compounds, putting them in the same flask and watching how they react."