David P. Brown, Ph.D.
Award-Winning Chemistry Professor Finds Teaching “a Ministry”
For more than a decade, many chemistry students at St. John’s University have discovered the exotic beauty of organic molecules in the classroom of an energetic professor who seems unable to remain behind a desk or lectern.
“I simply can’t stay in one place when I teach,” said David P. Brown, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Chemistry. “I have to keep moving around the room, to talk to students individually as well as collectively. The subject is just too exciting to keep still.”
Dr. Brown teaches organic chemistry in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In his classroom, students majoring in the natural and applied sciences unravel the intricacies of molecular composition, reactions and bonding. In his laboratory, they experience the challenges and rewards of research. Many speak of the unbridled enthusiasm he brings to his subject.
“I’ve never had a teacher more passionate about his field and about teaching than Dr. Brown,” said Frank Gentile ’16Pharm.D. Like other pharmacy majors, Gentile fulfills many of his chemistry requirements in St. John’s College. “The greatest lesson I’ve learned from him is that a little bit of effort goes a long way — in chemistry and in life.”
Reflecting this high regard, Student Government presented the 2011-12 John W. Dobbins Professor of the Year Award to Dr. Brown based on nominations from across the University. “It’s more than a tally of endorsements for each faculty member,” said James Salnave ’98C, ’02GEd, Associate Dean for Student Development. “A committee chooses the recipient based on our students’ most compelling testimonials.” Gentile was one of the students who had nominated him. “You can feel the energy he invests in making the subject come alive for you,” said Gentile.
That energy, said Dr. Brown, has filled him since his first day of high school, in his hometown of Port Antonio, Jamaica. During a welcome presentation, a science teacher told students he would “change water into wine.” Holding two flasks of colorless fluid, he poured one into the other, and the second liquid turned red. The change, Dr. Brown learned later, was due to a simple, acid-base reaction. “To me,” he said, “it was amazing.”
Encouraged by his high school teachers, Dr. Brown excelled in the sciences. He went on to the University of the West Indies for his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. The recipient of a Robert Marshak Graduate Fellowship, he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry at the City University of New York.
In 1994, Dr. Brown accepted his first professional teaching assignment, at Saint Peter’s College, NJ. Four years later, he applied to St. John’s for a one-year position with the possibility of a permanent appointment and the chance to conduct funded research. Dr. Brown secured the temporary and permanent assignments.
In the 13 years since then, St. John’s Vincentian mission has enhanced his teaching and research. For example, Dr. Brown participates in a summer program that allows disadvantaged high school students to conduct research in faculty laboratories. During the academic year, his lab is the site of research funded by the American Chemical Society and Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. Undergraduate and graduate students assist in his work on the design and synthesis of novel compounds “as biological agents with medical applications” — such as targeting cancer cells.
For Dr. Brown, teaching has a strong spiritual dimension. “It’s a ministry,” he said. “I remember the very first time I taught, back in a Sunday School class. I am a person of faith, and I believe I’m doing what I was called to do.”