Dr. Rob Walker to give Distinguished Professor Lecture on optical spectroscopy

Dr. Rob Walker, a professor in Montana State University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry since 2009, has been appointed Distinguished Professor for 2024 in the university’s College of Letters and Science. It is the highest honor the college bestows upon a member of its faculty in recognition of contributions to the college, MSU and the scholarly community.

Walker is an expert in employing optical spectroscopy – the use of light to probe the electronic, vibrational and rotational properties of molecules and materials – to determine chemical structure and reactivity. Walker will present a lecture titled “Tackling Scientific Challenges with Optical Spectroscopy” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at the Rialto Theater, 10 W. Main St. in Bozeman.

For more than 25 years, Walker’s research team has been developing and adapting spectroscopic methods to answer questions as fundamental as “What is the width of a liquid-liquid interface?” and as applied as “Why do fuel cells fail?” Walker will begin his talk by describing how the team deconstructs complex chemical systems into simpler pieces and then designs strategies to learn how system properties evolve with changing conditions.

He will explain how scientists can apply their findings to answer practical problems, such as converting chemical bonds into electricity; determining which properties drive molecules to bioaccumulate in organisms; and figuring out why chemistry on the surface of an object differs from chemistry in a bulk material.

Yves Idzerda, dean of the College of Letters and Science, said that, while Walker’s specialty is teaching upper-level undergraduate and graduate students, he excels equally at explaining his work to non-scientific audiences in an engaging way.

“In his role as someone who champions projects from many different technical directions, he is able to put it all together into a single picture that a non-scientist understands,” Idzerda said.

He said Walker was selected as this year’s Distinguished Professor not only for his outstanding scientific achievements and service to the college but also for his long-term participation in sizable, multi-institutional grants.

One of those is the multidisciplinary statewide SMART FIRES project funded by a National Science Foundation EPSCoR grant, for which Walker serves as the Montana University System project director. The project focuses on the dynamics of prescribed fire and the practice’s impact on Montanans and Montana communities.

In 2013, Walker helped create the Montana Materials Science Graduate Program, a collaborative effort between MSU, the University of Montana and Montana Technological University, to leverage cross-university expertise in materials science and expand and strengthen educational, research and workforce development opportunities across the state.

Walker has published more than 130 scientific papers, and his work has been recognized with a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation and several prestigious fellowships. He is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Distinguished Professor Lecture is free and open to the public. Doors will open at 6 p.m. and beverages will be available for purchase. Parking is available on the street or in nearby public lots. For more information, contact the College of Letters and Science at 406-994-5187.