Jesse Rowsell to be Honored with Symposium and Memorial Fund

February 25, 2015

Amanda Nagy

Jesse Rowsell
Photo credit: Image by John Seyfried

If there was a choice between the easy way or the right way, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jesse Rowsell chose the path that put ethics above everything else in his life and work.

Students knew they would be challenged in his classes. Some would have to work harder than ever before, but they felt supported in their challenge. They learned how to engage with difficult material in an honest and respectful way, with no shortcuts. “Watching him in his job made me a better professor,” says his wife of eight years, Associate Professor of Chemistry Rebecca Whelan.

An avid hiker and lover of the outdoors, Rowsell died of exposure on a hiking trip near his hometown in northern Ontario on January 30, 2015. He was 37. In addition to Whelan, he is survived by his sister, Rima Rowsell, and his parents, Shelley Rollins and Murray Rowsell.

A memorial symposium will be held in his honor from 1:30 to 5 p.m. April 4 in select venues on campus. The event will include talks by colleagues from Oberlin and other institutions, as well as Rowsell’s student research assistants.

Rowsell began teaching at Oberlin as a visiting assistant professor in 2009 and became a tenure-track assistant professor in 2012. He received his undergraduate education at the University of Waterloo and earned his PhD at the University of Michigan, where he met Whelan. He taught materials chemistry and inorganic chemistry, and he was an expert in the field of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), having collaborated with students and Professor of Physics Stephen FitzGerald on the subject.

“Jesse and I had the ideal collaboration. He was the ‘maker,’ and I was the ‘measurer,’” FitzGerald says. “He was an innovative researcher. His work with metal-organic frameworks formed the basis for at least a dozen Oberlin students becoming coauthors on published papers. Jesse was always very patient and enthusiastic while explaining the nature of these MOF materials to the students.”

Whelan says Rowsell gave himself completely to his teaching. “More times than I can count, he would stay up late preparing to teach his courses. He read exhaustively, developed creative new demonstrations, and crafted compelling class activities that would help his students learn. I have heard from many students who benefited from the time Jesse gave to them through individual conversations in office hours, advising meetings, and help sessions. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of patience for his students, and I know that he truly cared about each student as a person first, as well as a learner of chemistry.”

To understand the depth of his scientific contributions, one only needs to look at the number of times Rowsell’s work has been cited by other researchers, including four first-author publications that have been cited more than 1,000 times each. Whelan says he conducted all of his work with the highest possible level of rigor. “This means he never overstated the story told by his data. Instead, he adhered to the strictest standards of scientific ethics and integrity in all of his presentations and publications.”

Rowsell was also known for his artistic abilities. He was a regular participant in the annual Chalk Walk display, he helped design the chemistry department’s neon sign, and he hosted two radio shows on WOBC. Whelan says he brought his artistic sense to all his research work, imbuing images and presenting data with an aesthetic that supported the beauty of scientific insight.

"It's a great loss for his wife, their families, and our community," says President Marvin Krislov. "Jesse Rowsell touched many lives with his teaching. He was beloved by his students and colleagues and many others in Oberlin. While we mourn his passing, we also need to celebrate his life and work."

As a tribute to Rowsell, the college has established a memorial fund that will be awarded to financially deserving and academically outstanding research students. Donations can be made online by indicating that the donation is a memorial gift. For more information on ways to support the fund, contact Catherine Gletherow at

Participants in the April 4 symposium include Linda Nazar, Department of Chemistry, University of Waterloo; Nathaniel Rosi, Department of Chemistry, University of Pittsburgh; Juergen Eckert, Department of Chemistry, University of South Florida; and Charles Campana, Department of Advanced X-ray Solutions, Bruker Corporation; as well as Stephen FitzGerald and Oberlin students Ren Wiscons and Holden Lai.

Presentations will be held in Wright 201. An evening reception will follow in the Science Center Commons.

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