Delays and detours are as common in research as they are in one’s daily commute, but Dick Kerr, a 1968 College of Wooster graduate, had to travel further than most during his Independent Study (I.S.) journey at The College of Wooster.
A chemistry major from suburban Maryland, Kerr was paired with Roy Haynes, professor of chemistry, in a study of organic synthesis, but despite his best efforts, he had trouble producing the desired results. “I had the right stuff in the test tube, but I couldn’t make it work,” he said.
So Kerr was forced to find an alternative synthesis, which, in the days before Google and other Internet search engines, could be a quite laborious task. His extensive research led him to a French-language paper that was published in 1907. During Christmas break, Kerr went to the Library of Congress where he found what he was looking for, and a few months later he turned in an I.S. deemed worthy of departmental honors.
Today, four decades after that senior I.S. experience, Kerr is using many of those same research techniques as a senior writer with Science, the world’s preeminent journal of original scientific research based in Washington, D.C.
“I could not have received better preparation than I did at Wooster and later in graduate school,” said Kerr, whose mother and sister also attended the College. “Even now, it’s hard to find many schools that offer a program like I.S.”
Kerr came to Wooster in the fall of 1964 intending to major in physics and pursue a career in meteorology, but when he realized that physics required more calculus than he wanted to get into, he opted for chemistry. During his junior year, Kerr took a seminar in oceanography offered by Gray Mueller, a visiting professor at the time. “It really appealed to me,” said Kerr, who also found time to play soccer just as the sport was gaining varsity status. “I enjoyed the seminar, and it set me on a different course.”
Kerr began to look into graduate school options for oceanography, but learned that he would have to broaden his base in the sciences. “I had to take basic courses in geology, biology, and biochemistry,” he said. “I was usually the only upperclassman in a course filled with freshmen.”
After graduation in the spring of 1968, as the war in Vietnam ground on and graduate school draft deferments were eliminated, Kerr chose the Navy and did two deployments onboard a Navy oiler in the western Pacific. After his second tour, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Rhode Island, where he studied natural organic matter in sea water. At the same time, he began to think about what else he could do with a Ph.D. in marine chemistry.
“I was in my mid-to-late 20s when I started wondering if I could become a science writer,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t know if I could write, so I took some night classes.”
A few years later, a fellow graduate student told Kerr about a position at Science, so he applied and was offered a job despite what he admitted was “precious little writing experience.” The publication gave Kerr time to get up to speed, and he has been there ever since. He covers earth and planetary sciences, “which is anything in the gravitational influence of the sun,” he said. “I’ve done a lot on climate change, global warming, depletion of natural resources, and the like. It is a tremendously broad beat.”
Kerr doesn’t get back to campus very often, but he remains grateful for the foundation he built at Wooster. “The education I received in the sciences was integral to where I am today,” said Kerr, “and my exposure to research through I.S. was invaluable.”
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