Campus News

Christensen to Receive National Award for Encouraging Undergraduate Chemistry Research at Bowdoin

Story posted January 21, 2003

Press release courtesy of the American Chemical Society.

Read the official announcement of Prof. Christensen's award in the January 13 issue of Chemical and Engineering News at

Ronald L. Christensen of Brunswick, Maine, will be honored March 25 by the world's largest scientific society for his insights into how plants capture light energy - studies he has conducted using Bowdoin College undergraduates as research associates. He will receive the 2003 Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in New Orleans.

As a chemistry professor and physical chemist at Bowdoin, a college with only an undergraduate program in chemistry, Christensen has "the satisfaction of bringing along students who are relatively new to research," he said. "And the wonderful thing about undergraduates is their energy and enthusiasm."

With his students Christensen studies carotenoids, a family of chemicals best recognizable as the compounds that make carrots orange or comprise Vitamin A. His own interest, however, is their role in photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn light into chemical energy.

"It turns out that carotenoids catch light that chlorophyll misses and then pass along their energy to chlorophyll to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis," he explained.

With their attractive colors and important roles in nature, carotenoids can draw students to the basics of electron structure, energy transfer and other fundamentals of physical chemistry. In turn, Christensen can then show how understanding such properties can further other fields such as nanotechnology, which tries to design ever smaller and more exquisitely controlled systems such as thin-screen displays.

Christensen described himself as "somewhat of a late bloomer" when it came to interest in science. "In high school I was more interested in athletics," he said. "But my first year at Oberlin brought me into a whole new world I didn't know existed. I was asked to start research early on and found it rigorous and exciting.

"I'd have to say that experience has influenced my teaching at Bowdoin. Some magical things can happen when students do research, and I try to encourage that," he added.

Christensen received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College in 1967 and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1972. He is a member of the ACS divisions of physical chemistry and chemical education.

The ACS Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution is sponsored by Research Corp.

To learn more about chemistry at Bowdoin visit

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