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Harrison ’05: Ability to Explore

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel P. Harrison ’05 assisting a cadet in a lab.

Teaching and working with cadets in VMI’s labs are two of the great joys of Lt. Col. Dan P. Harrison ’05, Ph.D., as a chemistry professor at the Institute. After earning his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Virginia, Harrison was drawn back to VMI for many reasons, including the opportunity “to foster cadets’ ability to discover.”—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

Lt. Col. Daniel P. Harrison ’05, Ph.D., VMI chemistry professor, specializes in and teaches single-crystal X-ray diffractometry. In it, he seeks to foster a deep understanding of the three-dimensional makeup of molecules that his cadet researchers build at the atomic level by bombarding very small crystals with X-rays, analyzing how they react, and determining their structures. That might not seem like an important field, Harrison admits, until you consider that 14 scientists have received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry or Physics for work in the field.

Growing up in rural Indiana, Harrison wasn’t aware of single-crystal X-ray diffractometry. But he was interested in chemistry. “Three things turned me toward chemistry,” he recalls, “tennis balls, glow sticks, and fireworks. My brother and I would soak tennis balls in gasoline and set them on fire, and I found myself wondering why certain things burned faster than others. Glow sticks’ light comes from a chemical reaction called chemiluminescence, while fireworks’ colors come from electronic transitions. So, I started wondering why these reactions occurred.”

These questions made Harrison apply himself to his chemistry classes. His strength in mathematics helped him decide to study chemistry in college. “Chemistry is math-based, and, like math, it follows rules and lets you quantify things.” Yet, Harrison also saw something more. “It also offered a way to come to a deeper understanding of how the world worked and to address questions that needed answering.”

The many veterans in his family had told stories about military life, from World War II to the Persian Gulf War. All of them had been enlisted and gave him the same advice: “If you go into the military, you need to be an officer.” After finding VMI on his own, he visited during his senior year in high school. He liked the discipline and the structure of cadet life. “As in science and math,” Harrison said, “the rules are the rules.” However, the Honor Code stood out the most. “I didn’t like the dishonesty of many people I knew growing up. So, being in an environment where I could count on others’ honesty was very appealing.”

Almost immediately, he knew chemistry was the right major for him. “For the first time in my life, it was good to be a nerd. I also felt like [being] part of a family, thanks to the faculty,” he continued. “They were nurturing and facilitated a family atmosphere. I worked with professors like Steve Riethmiller [’63] and Henry Schreiber on projects in the laboratory and helped them with projects at their homes.”

Harrison credits chemistry with providing what he described as “an ability to explore.” Asked if he was influenced particularly by a professor, he replied, “If I had to choose one, it would be [Colonel] Daren Timmons.” Timmons taught at VMI from 2001–16 and taught Harrison inorganic chemistry. According to Harrison, Timmons “brought enthusiasm, excitement, and clarity to the subject and all the others he taught and so showed us the intricacies of nature.” Besides providing an example of effective teaching, Harrison says, “he showed me how to be a good leader and a good mentor.”

It was Timmons who urged Harrison to do research, and, in the course of it, Harrison discovered what he calls “a clean molecule.” It was, as he put it, “a powerful moment” because “I discovered it. I made it.” That moment, he relates, illustrated the essence of chemistry. “It’s about the discovery of seeing something new and the need to create ways to test things.”

Harrison left VMI as a distinguished graduate with a firm foundation in chemistry theory and practice and the confidence to pursue graduate studies. “The experience opened my eyes. It showed me that we are capable of so much more than we think—and what we’ve been told. At VMI, I learned I was my own biggest barrier and that I had to knock it down so I could create.”

"We can do 95% of the research necessary to create published work. This not only gives cadets a better, more comprehensive education, but it also improves their marketability."

Lt. Col. Daniel P. Harrison ’05, VMI chemistry professor

Harrison pursued his doctorate at the University of Virginia, where he studied the ability of inorganic compounds to modify the standard organic chemistry of aromatic molecules. There, he continued his journey of discovery. “I helped blow open a dormant project, and [the scientists at Virginia] are still working off that—and I’m still tracking their follow-up work.” Also, many of the novel compounds he synthesized while at UVA are at the National Institutes of Health’s Molecular Library for Small Molecule Repository, where their biological activity is still being studied.

As he worked toward his Ph.D. and then took a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Harrison admits “it had never occurred to me to come back to VMI.” Yet, in late 2012, at a conference in North Carolina, he met his mentor again. Timmons informed him that a position was open at VMI and, as Timmons described it, “it sounded right to me.” Harrison also saw the opportunity “to foster cadets’ ability to discover.” Another thing that drew Harrison back to VMI in January 2013 was the opportunity to help cadets like him. “I was a first-generation college student, and I wanted to help young people of a similar background to break their own barriers.”

Asked about changes in the department in the past decade, Harrison said that the biggest is the equipment available to cadets for research. “We had equipment, of course, when I was a cadet, but now we have so much more advanced capabilities. In fact, we can do 95% of the research necessary to create published work. This not only gives cadets a better, more comprehensive education, but it also improves their marketability. The more equipment they have used, the more appealing they are to employers and graduate programs.”

Another change over the past decade is a focus on skill sets. “We’ve restructured the curricula to strengthen translational skills development.” For example, cadets must write out procedures before any lab work and then receive immediate feedback using a computer program that Harrison developed. Making cadets develop “a letter of transmittal,” a relatively brief report on their research, and requiring them to make presentations about their work also helps them prepare for advanced research and the world of work. “The goal is to help them develop how to think about what they do and how to make it accessible.”

Harrison also points out that the department is focusing on longer-term projects. Rather than what Harrison terms “one-and-done work,” select experiments take place over several weeks. “That allows them to combine synthesis and analysis and to apply different analytical techniques.”

The overarching goal is to create an atmosphere in which cadets are “intellectually challenged, but also happy as they learn and are inspired to keep going further and deeper into chemistry.” To that end, he continues some of his professors’ customs. “My wife and I have dinners with cadets, and on reading day before Christmas furlough, we invite cadets over to make and decorate cookies. We also have bonfires.”

While he enjoys teaching, Harrison admits he is happiest “working with cadets in labs. We teach them the basics, then they start driving projects and start making their own discoveries. Some of them have changed the direction of my research.”

Being an alumnus, Harrison thinks, has advantages. “I can break through more effectively. They appreciate you’ve had the same experience, and it makes communication more efficient. The more quickly you can connect, the more likely you are to get them going. Of course, they don’t get away with much.”

Asked what he considers his leading characteristic as a teacher, Harrison laughs, “The cadets will tell you I am enthusiastic about failing. I tell them that failure drives our learning and understanding. I also tell them to be open to failure because that’s how we learn to fix our problems, to overcome.”

“I also hope I communicate how chemistry helps you look deeper into life and realize how much deeper, more intricate things are.”

  • Scott Belliveau

    Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects

    The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.