In the midst of award-winning year, KU chemist reflects on her life's work
LAWRENCE — For Kristin Bowman-James, the answer to what inspires her continued inquiry is simple: She loves chemistry. So deep is her adoration that she has devoted nearly half a century to research, teaching, mentoring and service in the field. Though public recognition has never been her motivation, Bowman-James is deeply honored to have been acknowledged this year with two national accolades: the American Chemical Society Award in Inorganic Chemistry and, more recently, election to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Her research involves the strategic design of organized molecular frameworks as selective receptors for anions, as well as potential ligands for transition metal ions — work with the potential to meet challenges like nuclear waste site cleanup and depletion of the world’s available phosphorus reserves.
The University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and director of Kansas NSF EPSCoR spoke with us about these distinctions, the evolution of KU’s research environment since she joined the faculty in 1975, the most important breakthrough in her work, what accomplishments make her most proud, her advice for students exploring careers in science and more.
What is meaningful for you about your induction into the Academy?
To me the most meaningful aspect of being invited into the Academy is its diversity, covering scholarly fields across the gamut of the arts and sciences. To be associated with the same organization that has included some of the most incredible scientists, scholars and leaders throughout the last several centuries is awe-inspiring.
You’re approaching 50 years at the University of Kansas. What are some notable ways that the KU research environment has evolved over that time?
KU’s research environment has very visibly evolved over the last four decades. When I arrived, mid-1970s, I found it very difficult to obtain external research funding. Few faculty hires were made (in chemistry at least) until Ted Kuwana, George Wilson and Daryle Busch, endowed distinguished professors, in the mid to late 1980s. In the 1990s, the administration made the excellent decision to combine the two major research offices at KU, putting them under the umbrella now known as the KU Center for Research (KUCR). This gave researchers a more clearly defined, streamlined process for submitting research proposals that included institutional help with budget preparation and provided the needed impetus for KU’s research enterprise to leap forward. Two NSF multi-million dollar research centers; externally recruited, internationally renowned foundation professors; and our recently constructed multidisciplinary research and engineering buildings have led to a new and promising environment for future research at KU.
How has KU supported your work in ways that have helped you achieve this and the other major accolades you’ve received recently?
KU has supported our work by providing important and necessary research support. The establishment of KUCR is one example, but more specifically, KU has recognized the necessity of having in-house access to critically needed research instruments that are very expensive. Scientists and engineers at KU have continued to work with the administration to obtain federal funding for these high-cost instruments, and KU has always done their best to come up with matching funds, as well as, when possible to provide these facilities with university funds.
What inspires your ongoing inquiry?
This is easy: I do this because of my love of chemistry.
Can you describe (in layman’s terms) any breakthrough or aha moments in your research over the years? Conversely, were there moments where you felt like quitting, and why?
Probably the most important breakthrough came at a time when we least expected it. One of my visiting scholars, Mr. Kunjian Gu, one of the first visiting scholars after China opened up, had a disappointing but surprising research result — the capture of a single negative ion (nitrate) in a molecular cage. We decided to follow up, and a few years later my graduate student Susan Mason, currently a scientist at Navair, found that by using a bit more complicated cage, she could capture two nitrates. This seemingly simple finding led us to devising ways to capture even more complex ions and to study the structure and chemistry associated with these processes. This small disappointing result is what has led this year to an ACS Award in Inorganic Chemistry.
"While we have had some chemical breakthroughs throughout the years, I think I am most proud of the students whose careers I have somehow positively influenced."
Outside of these recent major awards, what are some of your proudest accomplishments in your career?
While we have had some chemical breakthroughs throughout the years, I think I am most proud of the students whose careers I have somehow positively influenced. This includes, in addition to students who have gone on to chemistry careers, successful lawyers, doctors, nurses and pharmacists. I was overwhelmed, after my inorganic award was announced, to hear from many of my former students, some of whom were in large classes I taught many years ago.
Can you describe how mentoring students and postdocs has been part of your contribution to your field? Why are those mentoring relationships important, and have you had a mentor(s) who helped guide you during various stages of your education and career?
The first part of this answer is provided in the previous question. The answer to the second question involves my high school chemistry teacher, the faculty members at Temple University who provided strong mentorship (and, at times, unwanted advice), and my Ph.D. advisor, Zvi Dori. My postdoctoral mentor, KU colleague and close friend Daryle Busch provided ongoing mentorship throughout my academic career. His passing this month is a big loss.
What advice do you have for students — particularly students from groups that are historically underrepresented in the sciences — about exploring/pursuing a career in science?
My advice is that if a career in science is what calls to you and what you truly want to do, just go for it. Don’t worry about role models, or lack thereof. Frankly, I never even gave the role model thing a thought when I was a student. I just knew what I wanted, that I seemed to be pretty good at it, and would just work hard to get there. Yes, it is heartbreaking that there are still significant biases. There are, however, a lot of people working to change this. We cannot let the threat of biases deter us from pursuing what makes us happy.
What do you like to do in your spare time outside of work?
I love cars. Up until about 10 years ago, my husband and I would go to the drag races on weekends and race. I drove a rear engine dragster, and my husband, Gary, raced a ’67 Camaro. I still enjoy driving powerful and fast cars — at controlled speeds of course.