A Dedicated Professor Impacts Both Students and Science

Kenneth Brown '77 crowns his SMC career as the Professor of the Year. 

By Amy Debderosian / Photography by Haley Nelson

At first, Professor of Chemistry Kenneth Brown was surprised to learn Saint Mary’s College had named him Professor of the Year for 2019–2020. He had been phasing into retirement for over five years, and this would be his final year at the College. Surely, he thought, there was someone more deserving of the honor.

Brown reacted more positively when told the recognition was for the entirety of his 36-year SMC faculty career. Still, he said, “I see myself as a worker bee, even in my teaching.”

The accolades of his former students and current faculty colleagues contradict this view. Student evaluations describe him as “very enthusiastic about students succeeding and understanding the material” and “the most caring professor I have ever had.” 

“It would appear he was custom built for his role: His depth of knowledge was tempered by his humble demeanor,” said Daniel Dobson ’14. “Seeking help on academics as well as life always felt like talking to a father. Like a father, the love he displayed was always evident: love for the school, love for his students, and love for learning.”

Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Sigman characterized Brown by using several single-word descriptions: Honest. Principled. Kind. Cheerful. Generous. Dependable. He added, “These attributes obviously contribute to Ken’s outstanding abilities as a teacher. They have also made him what I consider to be a model faculty colleague, especially in his role as a leader and mentor.”

Brown first came to the College as an undergraduate student, earning a chemistry degree in 1977. After completing a PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, he returned to SMC, this time as a faculty member. 

“When I was a fair way through my graduate program, I realized teaching would be something I’d really enjoy. My own experience at Saint Mary’s was one I valued highly,” said Brown.

In the 1980s, Brown and Biology Professor Margaret Field started a summer science research program for students that continues today. He considers this accomplishment important for fostering student development and as one of his two lasting contributions to SMC—the other is helping to create the biochemistry major. 

A number of students he mentored during the summer or independent study have gone on to graduate school or corporate positions in chemistry, including Robert Kuimelis ’89, Brown’s first student researcher. Now vice president of chemistry for the DNA diagnostics firm InSilixa, Kuimelis noted, “The experience cemented my decision to pursue graduate studies and, ultimately, a career in chemistry research. On a practical note, I found myself well ahead of my peers in the lab when I started a PhD program in chemistry.”

Brown’s research focuses on mechanistic organic chemistry, specifically the stereoselectivity of chemical reactions. He has most frequently taught organic chemistry, which he loves.

"When I was a fair way through my graduate program,realized teaching would be something I’d really enjoy. My own experience at Saint Mary’s was one I valued highly.” — Professor Kenneth Brown '77

“Organic chemistry involves three to four distinct ways of thinking because there are three to four identifiable problems to be solved. It forces students to think in ways they don’t in other types of classes. It’s a really good course for the development of their minds,” said Brown.

Teaching lab courses is another of his passions. Brown explained, “Lab allows you to work with your head and your hands. It combines the things I like about doing science myself: conceptual reasoning, mathematical tools, and experimental skills. I enjoy watching students work in the lab. It’s a place where their innate curiosity can come out.”

Brown has also taught January Term courses on environmental science topics and Collegiate Seminar. For many years, he was the chair of the Department of Chemistry, serving so well that his colleagues joke that they would gladly give him a lifetime appointment.

But now, his time at the College is coming to a close. Brown will teach one lab course this fall and another two in the spring. Then, he will leave not only SMC but California, relocating with his wife to the Pacific Northwest to be near their two sons. A lover of the outdoors, Brown plans to continue favorite activities such as hiking, camping, and backpacking.

He will also volunteer, explaining, “I want to take the particular skills I have—teaching science and mathematics—and work as a tutor to high school students or community members. I don’t think I can give up teaching.”