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Convocation Address 2003

Kunisi S. Venkatasubban

Distinguished Professor

Professor of Chemistry

College of Arts and Sciences

Sciences at UNF: A Personal History


            It is a great honor to receive this award and to a certain extent I feel overwhelmed by this occasion.  I was not sure what I could say at this convocation that would interest you all.  My initial thought was to talk about my own research, which deals with some fundamental, esoteric issues in mechanistic organic and biochemistry.  That would be a real ordeal both for you and for me.  Instead, I chose to speak about “The Sciences at UNF: A Personal History.”  While I do that, I will briefly touch upon some aspects of my research—minus the details—to give you a flavor of what I do.


            It was 1980 when I first visited Jacksonville, a clear and crisp Friday in autumn.  I came to interview for a visiting faculty position in organic chemistry in the Department of Natural Sciences.  All the organic chemists hired at UNF between 1972 and 1980 had left, prompting concern among faculty in the department.  I must confess that I, too, was apprehensive about the turnover in the position.


            After receiving a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Kansas, I had worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, a lecturer at Texas A & M, and a research associate at the University of Florida, all before interviewing at UNF.  Some of my friends joked that I was steadily working my way down, but there were significant attractions about the eight-year-old university in Jacksonville, beginning with average class sizes of only twenty-five students in organic chemistry.  At Texas A & M, my classes had 150 students.  I well remember walking into a large class of veterinary medicine majors, all Texans.  At five-feet and five-inches tall, and weighing barely one hundred pounds, I was easily the smallest person in the room.  I told them I was probably the first Indian crazy enough to attempt to teach organic chemistry to a bunch of cowboys, then I told them to take off their Stetsons and pull up their boots, because this was going to be one war the Indian would win!  After that I never had a problem with Texans.


            One of the other things that initially attracted me to UNF was the Natural Science faculty’s dedication to excellence in teaching.  Jay Huebner was chosen as a UNF Distinguished Professor that year because of his commitment to teaching and, as well as to research.  Through the years, since 1980, I’m happy to report that faculty in the sciences have kept alive the commitment of the founding faculty to excellence in teaching.


            One of my main concerns in 1980, and one that has continued to worry me since then, was the lack of infrastructure and resources for doing scientific research at UNF.  In 1980, UNF provided no startup funds for new faculty in the sciences to set up research labs.  In fact, no startup funds were available for faculty at UNF until 1995—a year after I became the chair—and then the university only offered $10,000 per person maximum.  Other colleges roughly the same size as UNF, currently provide, on average, $100,000 in startup funds.


            Working around these limitations has required resourcefulness.  Jay Huebner was able to establish a productive research program involving undergraduate students, publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, and secure grants from the National Institutes of Health to promote his research, but the secret of his success was his early training in electronics as an engineer.  He had special skills and was able to build his own research instruments.


            That resourceful tradition has continued among our new hires.  Tom Pekarek, for example, brought his own scientific instruments from Purdue to establish a well-funded research program at UNF.  It is the same resourcefulness that motivated another young faculty member, Stuart Chalk, to seek the first ever patent for UNF.  A second patent, this time by Jay Huebner, is pending.  Still, the lack of infrastructure and resources for scientific research is a serious problem.


            In addition to resourcefulness, a great degree of persistence—more than you can imagine—is also needed to complete publishable experimental projects.  Undergraduate students do not stay as long as graduate students and therefore our projects take longer periods of time to complete.  Successive sets of students have to be trained to complete the projects.  A project I started in the mid-80’s was completed and published in 1998 with four undergraduate students as co-authors.  One of these students is currently a lab instructor in chemistry at UNF and very possibly the best one we have.  This project provided an experimental evidence for a mechanism proposed by Nobel laureate Eigen in 1960 about proton transfers in chemical reactions.  The paper was published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry.  In the same vein, my colleague Bob Vergenz had to work for four years to complete a project and publish it in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the premier journal in all of chemistry.  He, too, had to train a successive set of students to complete this project.  This paper was just published this week!


            Sometimes, faculty have modified their research projects to utilize the instruments available at UNF.  This is what I did in the 1990s, when the department bought a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer – for instructional purposes.  Magnetic Resonance Imaging is used by doctors for diagnostic purposes and works on the same principle as the NMR spectrometer.  Both the NMR spectrometer and Magnetic Resonance Imaging instruments use radio waves, along with powerful magnets.  Recognizing the opportunity for related research, I designed an undergraduate research project utilizing the new instrument.


            With the advent of personal computers and fax machines, complicated information could be exchanged rapidly with colleagues at other institutions.  Collaborating with scientists at other universities has enabled UNF science faculty to advance their research agendas.  In my own case, such collaboration—with a colleague at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City—has resulted in a dozen publications in the last ten years from the NMR project, and has involved a number of undergraduate students at UNF in serious scientific research.


            Our NMR project essentially showed how the NMR instrument can be used as an analytical tool to determine the amount of real drug molecules in a mixture containing the drug and other structurally similar but pharmacologically inactive compounds.  Pharmaceutical companies donated the experimental drug molecules for this project.  Students involved in this project actually determined the NMR characteristics of these drug molecules and applied them to the NMR concepts they learned in the classroom.  This work also enabled me to provide good examples from my own research when I discussed NMR concepts in the classroom.


            The arrival of the Mayo Clinic at Jacksonville, located so close to our campus, raised the possibility of expanding the number of collaborative research projects.  Because I hold a visiting scientist position at the Mayo Clinic, I have been able to work in Professor Terrone Rosenberry’s lab.  Professor Rosenberry is a leading expert on the chemistry of acetylcholine esterase, an enzyme that plays a key role in nerve impulses.  My own project at Mayo involves studying interaction of this enzyme with Rivastigmine, a drug used to relieve early symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease.  In addition, and this is very important for a teaching institution like UNF, I have been able to involve my students in the research at Mayo, where they have been able to use state-of-the-art instruments.


            UNF is a different school than the one I joined in 1980.  Our class sizes have become much larger.  When a class grows from 25 to 100 students, the workload of the faculty member increases tremendously.  And yet we teach the same number of courses every semester.  The additional time that goes into preparation, grading examinations and other reports cuts into the faculty research time.  Graders can be hired to do some of this work, but not all of it.  Hence, despite our resourcefulness, research productivity is again in danger of being curtailed.  This problem needs to be addressed before too long.


            Another problem is the space crunch, which is tied to the rapid enrollment growth of the 1990s.  While we were able to add faculty lines, we suffered further strain on our infrastructure, particularly in terms of physical space.  The lack of research lab space has been a real problem, sometimes even preventing us from hiring top-notch faculty.  We expect the new science and engineering building will alleviate the space problem.  This new building will have approximately 40,000 square feet for UNF’s chemistry and physics programs.


            Starting in the mid-1990s, the UNF administration showed a genuine commitment to improving science programs and science facilities.  The availability of annual travel and instrumentation funds, along with faculty summer research awards, summer research stipends for science students and new environmental lab facilities at the Golf Management and Learning Center, have all helped the science faculty.


            Let me raise a question that is often asked: is research important at a “teaching institution” like UNF?  I think it is.  Teaching, particularly at the college level, and research go hand in hand.  In science, research is a natural extension of the skills students learn in the classroom and the laboratory.  Faculty are obligated to involve themselves and their students in research as a part of their continuing education.  I believe that being involved in research makes me a better teacher.  UNF’s primary mission for the foreseeable future will be excellent undergraduate teaching.  But research is essential to enhance one’s teaching skills.  Fostering teaching and research requires that we hire faculty that have great potential for excellent teaching and have a deep commitment in their hearts to do research.  We must also provide them the necessary facilities, startup funds and encouragement to guarantee their success.


            Where do the sciences at UNF go from here?  I have seen us grow from offering a single combined BA degree in Natural Sciences to offering multiple degrees in sciences.  Soon we will be graduating masters students in biology.  The natural extension is perhaps to offer master’s degrees in fields that combine different disciplines.  A master’s degree in the chemistry and physics of materials combines chemistry, physics and possibly electrical engineering.  A master’s degree in molecular biology combines chemistry and biology.  Master’s degrees in science disciplines are becoming more and more popular as industries like to hire master’s level students, rather than bachelor or Ph.D. level students.  With the engineering and science programs moving into the same facility, more and more interactions between the various disciplines will be a natural evolution.


            Finally, I have enjoyed my tenure at UNF for the most part.  I thank my students for contributing to my research productivity and I thank my colleagues for the support they have given me over the last twenty-two years.  And I thank you for your attention.