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5 Things About Me: Chemist Cecil Dybowski

Cecil Dybowski, Ph.D.
Professor of Physical Chemistry
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of Delaware
Background: I study materials with spectroscopy to determine how processes work. Currently, the group collaborates with a group at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to study reactions that are destroying masterwork paintings. We also study other materials, such as active pharmaceutical ingredients, semiconductors, porous materials and heterogeneous catalysts.
Question 1: Why did you become a scientist?
Answer: In life, I have felt like a surfer must feel. Events around me often seem to determine what I do. Pediatric spinal-cord cancer had a great physical and emotional impact on me for many years (and still does), and I thought that medicine might be a career choice. As early as high school, I "knew" that science would be a part of my life. At the University of Texas at Austin, a chemistry professor encouraged me to join a research group as an undergraduate. That action set me on the path I now follow. At each subsequent turn, it seemed as if events pointed the way for my career.
Question 2: Tell us why you chose your particular field of study. Why did it grab your interest and fuel your curiosity?
Answer: In college, I quickly decided that medicine was not for me, although I have high regard for physicians. Chemistry (and particularly the physical side of chemistry) seemed like a great alternative, as I liked it, it was easy for me to comprehend, and it has significantly contributed to the wellbeing of humanity.
Question 3: What are you most proud of in your work?
Answer: I have enjoyed discovering how materials interact, rather than just exist separately. The complexity of interactions among components of a system has driven much of my scientific work. Techniques we developed help us to understand the microscopic world, and of that I am proud. But I am most proud of the students who have gone on to address complex materials problems in their own careers. They provide insights into the world that help humanity in myriad ways.
Question 4: Share a comment or opinion you have on a topical science-related issue—preferably one not associated with your own field.
Answer: I am concerned about negative attitudes towards science prevalent in society today, such as chemophobia. Many of these have been propagated by well-meaning scientists. These attitudes reflect a loss of perspective about the significant contributions of scientific discovery to the improvement of the human condition over several centuries. They have unfortunately become mainstream during my lifetime, with many persons often assuming that scientific developments have some nefarious goals.
Some scientists create doomsday scenarios that are as wrong as the pretense that every day will be sunny and perfect in the future. Scientists like me must take the lead in having society adopt a realistic approach to science and what it can do. We must not succumb to fads or allow society to be influenced by fear of potential outcomes, just as we must not give our friends and colleagues unrealistic expectations about the benefits of scientific results. We must carefully and objectively avoid speculation, the result of which is damage to science.
Question 5: Tell us about a hobby outside of work.
Answer: I enjoy the arts, especially a wide variety of music. Each composition encapsulates something about the time and place it was created. I particularly enjoy music of the 20th century (and now the 21st) because it is a window into our time's soul. For example, a Romantic composer could not describe the exuberance of riding in a sports car the way John Adams did. Or who cannot enjoy the ebullience of some contemporary popular music? My own compositions describe, each in its own way, events or ideas of the time and place of creation, whether programmatic or abstract.