JEMIMAH INTERVIEWS PROF DOUGLAS BUTTREY

Who Is Prof. Douglas Buttrey.
 
Douglas J. Buttrey received a BS in Biological Science from Wayne State University and an MS and PhD in Chemistry from Purdue University. He held the SOHIO Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Physical Chemistry at the University of Cambridge. After eighteen months as a visiting professor jointly in Chemistry, Physics, and Materials Science and Engineering at Purdue, he joined the faculty in Chemical Engineering at the University of Delaware. He is currently a full professor and the Associate Chairperson for Undergraduate Studies in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware; he also holds an affiliated appointment in Materials Science and Engineering and is a member of the University’s Center for Catalytic Science and Technology.  His research involves atomic-level design of complex materials for use in catalytic and alternative-energy applications. He has taught a variety of courses in thermodynamics, materials science, physical and solid-state chemistry, and statistics, and he has served as a visiting professor on five continents. Since 2008, he has worked actively with the Nelson Mandela Institution on a project to build high-level universities across sub-Saharan Africa and is committed to providing underserved populations with access to and education in science and technology.

My background is unusual in that I studied several different disciplines. My bachelors
degree is in biological sciences (Wayne State University), my masters is in biochemistry
(Purdue University), and my PhD is in physical chemistry (again Purdue University). I then
was appointed as Standard Oil of Ohio (SOHIO) Postdoctoral Scholar to Cambridge
University (UK) in physical chemistry, working for the department head, Professor Sir John
Meurig Thomas, and serving as a tutor for undergraduate students there.
After Cambridge, I returned to Purdue University as a Visiting Assistant Professor with a
joint appointment in the Department of Chemistry, the Department of Physics and
Astronomy, and the School of Materials Science and Engineering. This complicated
appointment was related to the fact that they wanted me to replace a colleague who had
died suddenly (age 44), and on whom many were dependent in these three disciplines to
maintain a multi-million-dollar NSF contract involving research similar to my own. I knew
how to operate important equipment in the laboratory of our late associate, so was able to
assist on keeping the research collaboration going. I also taught physical chemistry during
that time.
After about 18 months I had to decide between an offer to stay at Purdue with a tenure-
track appointment exclusively in Materials Science and Engineering, a second offer to take
a position at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India (a country I am very fond
of!), and a tenure-track position in Chemical Engineering at the University of Delaware
(UD). After much deliberation, I decided to make the jump to Chemical Engineering, a new
discipline for me that is somewhat related to physical chemistry. I made that change just
over 30 years ago, and I am still in the same department at UD today; I also hold an
affiliated appointment at UD in Materials Science and Engineering. I served as the
associate chairperson for undergraduate studies in chemical engineering from 2010-2017.
My research from my PhD studies to the present has been mostly focused on the synthesis
and characterization of complex mixed metal oxide materials of various types. These are
materials that contain several different metal elements from the periodic table in
combination with oxygen, and which form complicated and interesting (in my biased
opinion) crystalline structures. I also favor these materials when they have particular
interest for applications as catalysts (to speed up important chemical reactions) or for
electronic or energy-related applications.
I’ve had the privilege to hold a number of visiting appointments as well. I was a visiting
scientist in the Physics Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory (Long Island, NY)
for a year in the 1997-98, and have since held visiting professorships in Japan, Germany,
Poland, France, Brazil, and many times in Nigeria, the one in which I presume you may be
most interested.
I am now moving into a new area of research though… I have a collaboration with a
colleague in Chemistry at UD, Prof. Sharon Neal, and a bright young undergraduate student,
Joy Muthami, who has come to us from the Rift Valley in Kenya. Joy will be working with us

on detection and removal of fluoride from ground water. Fluoride contamination at high
levels presents a problem for many living in the Rift Valley in Ethiopia and Kenya. It
damages teeth and turns them brown. We would like to improve low-cost technology for
detection and removal to provide a safer water supply.

My interest in Africa can be traced back to family history that I grew up hearing about. My
maternal grandfather had been a cotton buyer for the British Cotton Growers Association,
traveling several times to Nigeria to purchase cotton for shipment back to Scotland. When
in Nigeria, he was based in the small village of Illushi on the west bank of the Niger River.
He contracted malaria there in the summer of 1915 and died, leaving my grandmother in
Ayr, Scotland with seven children to raise, the youngest of which was my mother at one
year of age. I grew up hearing stories about this and the struggle to relocate the family to
Toronto, Canada around 1920. I was always curious about the experiences of my
grandfather in Nigeria, and had only a few letters to refer to in trying to understand what
he had done there.
At UD, I became friends with Professor (now Dean) Babatunde (Tunde) Ogunnaike,
obviously of Yoruba descent, and discussed my interest in his country of origin. In the
midst of our prolonged discussions, Tunde was contacted by the Nelson Mandela Institute
about a project to build five high-level pan-African institutes for science and technology
studies. This idea originated with Mandela and was taken up by the World Bank Group
when James Wolfensohn was serving as its President. Tunde agreed to get involved, and
asked me to join as well, which I was happy to do! At that time, Dr. Frannie Leautier was
serving as Vice-President of the World Bank and was tasked with moving Mandela’s project
forward; this was ca 2000. As this was progressing, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the
World Bank Managing Director. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala had control of the finances and was
determined that the hub campus for these five institutes would be located in her home
country of Nigeria. She was well-connected there (former Finance Minister and Foreign
Minister) and managed to get the Nigerian government to donate 250 hectares of land on
the outskirts of the capitol city, Abuja.
The Abuja hub campus, known as the African Institute of Science and Technology (AUST),
was founded in 2007 and opened its gates to MSc students in July 2008, with five initial
disciplines: (1) Petroleum Engineering (of course), (2) Materials Science and Engineering,
(3) Physics, (4) Mathematics, and (5) Computer Science. The Acting President at the time
was Dr. Karl Voltaire from the World Bank. I was pleased to teach Thermodynamics to the
initial group of students in the first three of the five disciplines above. Professor Ogunnaike
joined me to teach them Statistics at the same time. Our courses ran in a condensed format
for 3 weeks, with 3 hours of lecture for his course in the mornings and 3 more hours for
mine in the afternoons every weekday! That pace is about 4-5 times faster than we would
normally teach in the US! Students and professors were exhausted by the end of three
weeks, but there was a great sense of accomplishment for all! To date, I have now visited
AUST 12 times and have my next visit coming up in a little more than a week!

I have been involved in Africa in other ways too. In 2013, I was asked to join a State of
Delaware Delegation to South Africa with the DE Secretary of State, Jeffrey Bullock, two of
my UD colleagues from Public Policy, and several lawyers and businessmen from the State.
We were hosted by a think tank group based in Pretoria called the Mapungubwe Institute
for Strategic Reflection and Analysis (MISTRA) and we spent time in the Johannesburg /
Pretoria region and in and around Cape Town. We were joined in Jo’burg and Cape Town
by Senator Coons on this trip as well. I visited a total of nine universities in S Africa in an
effort to build understanding and seek ways in which to partner in research and education.
I returned to S Africa again in 2014 (and 2017) to further interactions there. These
interactions also led to a UD-Africa Energy Conference that we held at the University of
Delaware in the Spring of 2016 in which we had a half day on Public Policy out of two days
total, with the remainder being focused on technical issues, and we alternated UD and
African speakers.
Last year, I was invited as a Keynote Speaker for a conference in Adama, Ethiopia and I
gave seminars at the University of Addis Ababa and at Bahir Dar University on that visit as
well. I expect to be returning to Adama and Addis Ababa, together with the current AUST
President, Prof. Kingston Nyamapfene, to plan a follow-up conference there to the one we
held two years ago at UD. This time we will add an additional focus on clean water to the
alternative energy and policy discussions we had previously.
Finally, I also spent a week at the 2iE – Institute for Water and the Environment in
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where there is now a partner campus to AUST-Abuja; this is
the second of the five campuses Mandela tasked us to build! The third campus is in Arusha,
Tanzania and a fourth is under construction in Harare, Zimbabwe. There was an attempt to
build one in Bamako, Mali, a few years ago, but this effort has collapsed due to conflict
there. I am not sure where the fifth campus will be located; we will see!

I am very excited to report that I will be teaching thermodynamics to a new group of MSc
students! I hope to have about 25-30 students from a variety of countries this time. The
course will run 3 hours every day for three weeks, as has been the pattern from the
beginning. I expect to work with the AUST President and others on future planning for the
university and on setting up new laboratories there.
During that time at AUST, I also hope to reconnect with the Liberian Ambassador to Nigeria
(based in Abuja), Professor Ambassador Mohammed Conteh, to discuss education
initiatives in Liberia. He was previously the President of the University of Liberia.

The primary target benefit to the AUST students is to have achieved a level of competence
that will assist them in getting admission to PhD programs in the developed world (US,
Canada, European countries, Japan, etc.). Typically, sub-Saharan countries have about 40-

50 PhD-level research scientists and engineers per million of population. That figure varies
somewhat from one country to another, but is far too low in all cases! The corresponding
statistic for the US is about 4,750 and for northern European countries is typically around
7,500. African development will be stifled without increasing the human capacity for
research and innovation. Our project is aimed at changing this. I hope that one day (not so
far into the future) some of my African students will be ready to replace me and others will
take leadership roles in industry or government to move Africa forward!

In so many ways we are all alike; however, we are all influenced by our culture and roots
too. What I find that differentiates typical African students from typical US or other western
students is that the level of motivation/determination is higher. The sense of purpose is
stronger. Many think that the only important thing needed for someone to become a
research scientist or engineer is intelligence. I say from decades of experience that the
most important attribute is passion and dedication. My African students tend to have that
at high levels, and I try to get them to put it to good use, not so much for personal gain as
much as to lead the society they live in to a better future, the future they want for
themselves, their families, their country and the continent as a whole!

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