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Interdisciplinary Innovator


Interdisciplinary Innovator

Sean Decatur
: The Marilyn Dawson Sarles Professor of
Life Sciences and Professor of Chemistry and Associate
Dean of Faculty for Science, Mount Holyoke College
Education: Ph.D., Chemistry, Stanford University;
B.A., Chemistry, Swarthmore College
Age: 38

It’s hard to predict where the career path of Dr. Sean M. Decatur may ultimately lead, considering that the Mount Holyoke College chemist thrives as a research scientist, a classroom professor and as an academic administrator. He’s already proven himself to be a top-notch biophysical chemistry researcher and an innovative teacher at the South Hadley, Mass.-based women’s college. But more recently, the part-time dean has shown that he also has the leadership and organizational skills to excel in higher education administration.

“Sean has that rare combination of scientific talent and superb organizational skills,” says Dr. Jonathan King, a research collaborator with Decatur and a professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Currently, Decatur holds an endowed professorship while serving as associate dean of faculty for science. He also manages a productive research laboratory and carries a half-time teaching load. An expert in biophysical chemistry, the Cleveland native largely studies how proteins function and develop, and how their malfunctions are linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Mount Holyoke officials describe Decatur’s experiments — which analyze both the physical process of protein folding and its connection to protein function  — as paving “the way for a cure for … diseases.” Decatur relishes the work, which is characterized by its interdisciplinary approach. “It’s exciting to me to work at the interface of chemistry, biology and physics,” he says.

The son of a middle school math and science teacher, Decatur says academic achievement was always emphasized in his house. He was drawn to science at an early age, he says. Although he did not grow up with his father, Decatur says his two older brothers were highly influential, and they also gravitated to math and science. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore, Decatur discovered that he liked “studying problems in biology” whose solutions required using the “tools of chemistry and quantitative analysis.” His professors, including mentors from the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, encouraged him to consider earning a doctorate in chemistry.

A recipient of a Faculty Early Career Development grant from the National Science Foundation in 2001, Decatur has thrived as a scientist, attracting a steady stream of funding since the 1990s. Unlike some researchers, who covet the infrastructure and the presence of graduate students that go with working at a large research university, Decatur says he deliberately sought the opportunity of going to an undergraduate liberal arts school like Mount Holyoke. He says he wanted to teach and conduct research in the same type of environment that had nurtured him during his college years.

“I had enjoyed my experience a great deal, and I thought I
could help provide similar learning experiences for other students if I went to a place like Swarthmore,” Decatur says.

Upon joining the Mount Holyoke faculty in 1995, Decatur took on the challenging task of building a chemistry laboratory from scratch.

To keep the laboratory staffed and running, he’s recruited senior students, postdoctoral students and recent Mount Holyoke graduates planning to attend graduate school. School officials say Decatur has developed and implemented lecture series and courses that blend the topics of race and science. Other courses he’s credited with developing explore the impact of contemporary scientific research.

Decatur says teaching at Mount Holyoke has been gratifying in part because of the school’s long tradition of educating women who achieve at a high level in the sciences. “It’s a powerful process of which to be a part,” he says. “It’s a place where there’s no one questioning whether women can make it in the sciences. It’s assumed that they will be successful.”

— By Ronald Roach

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