John Keith ’01

Wesleyan, to me, was George Petersson using a big, clunky potential energy surface model to describe chemical reaction kinetics at 9am. He later drove me in his cramped red sports car to group meetings at Gaussian Inc., talking the entire way about fine restaurants and smart and efficient computational algorithms. It was Jonathan Schell and my 11 classmates making me think and write deeply about The Nuclear Dilemma, science's role in society, and complementarity. There were ITS employees who taught me how to do a forehand throw with a frisbee, and other chemistry professors who taught me to fish (figuratively and literally).   

There was also a lot of music. Julie Ribchinsky, Sanda Schuldmann, and other music faculty coached me in subtle nuances of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Shostakovich. I performed the Haydn C Major cello concerto to a packed audience in Crowell Hall. I still remember watching the crowd roar after finishing my cadenza: my own theme and variations on the Wesleyan Fight Song, in the style of Haydn, in C Major. I played Jeff Buckley covers in a rock band and was conducted by Melvin Strauss, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, Neely Bruce, Henry Brant, Anthony Braxton, and Jaap Schroeder. The summer after graduating, I spent a serendipitous afternoon playing chamber music with a world-class, two-time Grammy-winning concert violinist. She said to me afterwards, awkwardly, but with fullest sincerity: "John, you’re actually not that bad a cellist…" Alas, life as an artist wasn’t in the cards for me (but I’m still proud of the 'compliment'!)

Fortunately, Wesleyan guided me into a Ph.D. program at a premier technical institute. This led to an Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellowship in Germany, followed by an associate research scholar position at an Ivy. A few months ago I started a tenure-track faculty position at the University of Pittsburgh, using computational chemistry to develop outside-the-box renewable energy technologies. Specifically, I’m finding ways to use sunlight to recycle CO2 into liquid fuels and chemicals.

Nobody will take the Wesleyan spirit out of me.