Analyzing a remarkable career in chemistry
Separating an egg yolk from its white is the kind of everyday, low grade separation process most of us are acquainted with, but the complex and precise demands of chemical analysis, separation, and measurement at the molecular level is the world in which chemistry professor John G. Dorsey ’73 has achieved international distinction.
Dorsey, the Katherine Blood Hoffman Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University, saw his career-long research efforts as an analytical chemist recognized in 2006 with the prestigious Award in Chromatography from the American Chemical Society. This honor is akin to a lifetime achievement award and certifies his position as a highly distinguished academician in the forefront of separations research.
“The award is generally regarded as the highest in my area, and I was just blown away when I got it,” Dorsey said. “The president of the ACS called me one day totally out of the blue. I was virtually speechless.”
Although the details of Dorsey’s area of scholarly research and expertise are best understood by his fellow scientists, the application of its techniques is often part of the daily news, our visit to the doctor, or the world of entertainment.
“You may read in the news about finding pesticides in food or benzene in soft drinks,” Dorsey said. “If you want to measure the concentration of those chemicals, or if you want to know the concentration of a pharmaceutical product in your bloodstream or your glucose level, how do you do that? That’s what an analytical chemist does. Our specialty is measurement science.”
And though analytical techniques have been greatly refined over the years, those kinds of detection and measurement exercises can still be daunting tasks for scientists.
“If I want to know if a particular pesticide is present in a fish, I’ve got literally thousands of other chemical compounds in there and I want to measure just one of them that’s going to be in a very, very low concentration,” Dorsey said.
Ink is a particularly good example, Dorsey said, of something containing secrets lurking in its chemical makeup that most of us are totally unaware of, but which are unlocked with the keys of chemical analysis.
“Ink manufacturers deliberately put marker compounds in there so that we can take an ink sample and tell you when it was made,” Dorsey said.
“Chromatography (the most commonly used procedure for chemical detection and measurement) and analytical chemistry are also used very heavily in forensic science. You hear the terminology on a lot of the CSI shows.”
After graduating from Transylvania, Dorsey worked in industry for two years before beginning his graduate work at the University of Cincinnati. There, he benefited from the good advice of a professor he still keeps in contact with.
“I went to graduate school with the intent of getting a master’s degree and going back into industry,” Dorsey said. “A very wise faculty member told me to check the Ph.D. box on the application form. He said, ‘Along the way, if you want a master’s, you can do that, but I’m going to bet you that in two years you’ll look around at the other students and realize you’re just as smart as they are and that a Ph.D. would be a lot better.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
After completing his Ph.D. in 1979, Dorsey interviewed for both industry and academic openings before discovering an excellent opportunity on the faculty of the University of Florida.
“That was one of the plum jobs out there that year for my area of chemistry,” Dorsey said. “The timing was perfect. There was a window when my specialty was in very high demand, and there were only a few candidates.”
Dorsey was lured back to Cincinnati for five years when he was offered the position vacated by the professor who mentored him during his Ph.D. studies. In 1994, Florida State came calling with an offer to chair its chemistry department consisting of 40 faculty members.
“Being the chair was interesting, and I’m glad I did it, but I’m glad it’s over,” Dorsey said. “To do that, you give up a lot of what you went into academics for. I was teaching less and had less time for research.”
Now that he is a full-time teacher and researcher again, Dorsey can focus more on one of his most fulfilling roles, that of mentoring Ph.D. students. He’s seen 52 so far go out into the world of industry, academia, and government work, with great success. “They’re like my children,” he said.
Dorsey also has his name on a chemical equation—the Foley-Dorsey Equation—that is recognized as the standard for calculating the resolving power of a separation step. It’s found in textbooks and computer software and is used by chromatographers around the world. He formulated it early in his career in collaboration with one of his Ph.D. students.
Even though he has accepted, and thrived in, the world of a large research university with all its demands for acquiring grant money and conducting research, Dorsey still values the smaller scale and personal nature of the education he received at Transylvania.
“I very much like the small college atmosphere,” he said. “The personal interaction with the faculty made a big difference to me. I have very fond memories of Transylvania.”
—William A. Bowden