Beloved Fink Concludes 43-Year Career
By Vincent Chen, Staff Writer
For students, faculty and administrators alike, the end of a semester is a hectic time. However, the end of this semester is even more eventful for the George H. Corey Professor of Chemistry Richard D. Fink. At the end of the school year, Fink will retire, concluding a long, distinguished career.

During his 43 years at the College, Fink has made a profound impact both in and out of the classroom. Emeritus Dean of Students Onawumi Jean Moss hailed him as "one of the most understated agents of change ever."

Professor Fink and Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Allen Kropf were instrumental in molding the introductory chemistry courses into their present form. Much of the present-day Chemistry 11 course is a product of their efforts, even 35 years after the course was introduced.

Professor of Chemistry David Hansen lauded Fink's contributions, calling him "one of the legendary three senior chemistry faculty." Hansen added, "Dick's retirement marks the end of an era. He truly is irreplaceable."

Outside the chemistry department, Fink was involved in the design of the Merrill Science Center, and oversaw its construction. He also helped develop the present-day exchange program between the College and Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, where Doshisha professors may spend a year of leave at Amherst. For this work (and for his research), Fink received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Doshisha University in 1988.

A physical and nuclear chemist, Fink has performed important research in areas as diverse as the distribution of protons during nuclear fission, the determination of air pollutants in the atmosphere and the application of molecular beam techniques to chemical reactions.

He was the first to demonstrate that in some low-energy chemical reactions, the "activated complex," the extremely unstable species that forms during the course of a chemical reaction and breaks down to form the products, has a lifetime even shorter than its period of rotation.

Furthermore, Fink helped develop molecular beam techniques that allowed for better measurement of the activation energies-the energy required to initiate a reaction-of an important class of chemical processes known as proton abstractions.

Fink expressed a passion for the broad liberal arts education for which the College is renowned. He encouraged all students to pursue a wide range of interests. "If a student comes in believing he or she wants to become a brain surgeon, he or she ought to rethink that from day one, so that his or her aims are not so narrow," he explained.

He especially urged social science and humanities majors, who will live in a society in which the tremendous rate of scientific advancement makes scientific awareness increasingly critical, to "take some of their interests to the natural sciences."

Fink practices what he preaches. According to John William Ward Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Neuroscience Program Lisa Raskin, "This Chemistry professor is not only proficient in his field, but could ace an exam in Shakespeare, opera, history or politics (and one shouldn't forget baseball) tomorrow with no more than 15 minutes to study."

To the end of helping non-science majors become more aware of the methods of the natural sciences, Fink (along with Kropf and Emeritus Professor of Physics Robert Romer) designed the course Chemistry 10: Energy and Entropy. The goal of the course, in Fink's own words, was to help non-science majors "realize they have-and have had the whole time-the power to read serious science and use it to characterize environmental, physical [and] biological systems."

By all accounts, he was enormously successful. Kropf, who regularly co-taught with Fink, applauded Fink's "wonderful ability to present serious science to non-science majors." According to Moss, Fink's students were even knowledgeable enough to contribute to the College's "cutting edge heating plant."

Fink is also widely admired for his humor. Kropf mentioned that Fink's "wit enlivened all his teaching and it was a rare class in which students didn't chuckle their way through his lectures."

Hansen also enjoyed Fink's classroom humor. "In the context of discussing the uncertainty principle," Hansen recalled, "[he] drew a World War I vintage fighter plane being shot at by anti-aircraft guns, [and] he always drew in a pilot and he always added a scarf."

The combination of Fink's teaching ability and his humor made him so popular among his students that, according to Dean of Students Ben Lieber, "to this day, at Alumni Reunion every year, his former students from every generation from the 60s on still ask after him and tell me how fondly they remember him."

Faculty also expressed the highest esteem for Fink. Raskin commended how Fink "seriously values education of the highest order." Raskin elaborated, "When he was Dean [of Faculty], he taught a whole generation of professors what really matters."

Professor of Fine Arts Nicola Courtright agreed. "I love his habitual inquisitiveness and intellectual curiosity; his mind never seems to rest." She also praised his friendliness, recalling, "Some of our best conversations would be when I would be panting around the track at 6:30 in the morning and he'd be power-walking there, and I'd keep pace with his long strides and we'd talk about all manner of things-baseball (he was a college player), his beloved daughters and mine, Amherst old and new, funny experiences."

Dean Moss also expressed appreciation for his "abiding respect for people (regardless of their stations in life) and his engaging sense of humor."

For his part, Fink expressed overwhelming gratitude toward the College and his colleagues. "It's been a wonderful place to have lived a life of research and teaching." He said, "My colleagues have been and are marvelous."

He also expressed a deep confidence in the College and its ability to remain a top educational institution. He described the Amherst he saw when he first arrived in 1964 as "a fine, yet narrow educational institution." "It was single sex, it had a fixed curriculum and there was little interdisciplinary discussion," he explained.

But reform came quickly, and the focus of faculty concern shifted from the institution as a whole to the departments and, finally, to the students. The result? According to Fink, "[The College] is a much more humane place [now]." He said, "It cherishes diversity, it's interested in new intellectual combinations, the faculty is outstanding almost across the board. I would think that the faculty roughly below age 50 (to pick a number) has never been stronger." He also applauded the College's strong science program, and praised the science professors as "first-rate researchers who are completely committed to excellence in their teaching-an unusual combination in many places, particularly in the sciences."

When asked whom in the College he would like to express special gratitude toward, Fink sighed and replied, "There are just so many. To name a few, Romer and Raskin and Kropf. And Hansen, Courtright, Pritchard, Olver, Deans Lieber and Moss. And most certainly [Emeriti Professors] Kateb, Hexter, Huet, Sandler and [Emeritus President] Pouncey."

After retirement, Fink plans to work collaboratively in research on the development and potential uses of hydropower. He also has in mind "another loony idea or two that may or may not come to fruition."

The consensus in the Amherst College community is that Fink will be truly missed by the many people he has influenced and touched during his tenure at the College-but there is a general sense that his impending retirement is a well-deserved end to an exceptional career. Raskin, perhaps, put it best. "That he is retiring is wonderful for him but sad for Amherst and for me," she said.

During his 43 years at Amherst, Fink has served as a Professor of Chemistry and as Dean of Faculty. Fink received his A.B. from Harvard University in 1958, and went on to receive a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962. He received an honorary A.M. from Amherst College in 1971, and an honorary L.H.D. from Doshisha University in 1988.

In addition, Fink has been the recipient of a number of awards, such as a National Science Foundation Senior Research Award in 1968, a Faculty Award in 1976 and a Professional Development Award in 1979. He has also received an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and a Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, both in 1970.

Issue 25, Submitted 2007-05-07 16:28:54