Featured Badger Chemist: Bruce Bursten, Ph.D. 1978 (Fenske)

By Aadhishre Kasat
Department Communications & Student Researcher (Buller)

three men stand in front of trees
Prof. Bruce Bursten (center) stands with Emeritus Professors Paul Treichel (left) and Larry Dahl (right), who he considers important mentors during his time as a graduate student at UW.

With hands covered in chalk, gazing at complex equations, within the sunlit, tall white walls of Berkeley, the professor within Bruce Bursten was kindled for the very first time. It was something about being on a college campus, surrounded by passion and intellect, that as a junior in high school Bursten already knew his future.

He carried his love for numbers to the University of Chicago and started as a math major. “I took first-year chemistry because my mom wanted me to consider premed and because I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of it,” Bursten said. “I eventually decided to take both organic and physical chemistry as a sophomore and figured if I survived that, I was going to be a chemist. Needless to say, I loved it and pursued the opportunity of becoming a professor.”

Bursten’s quest in inorganic research began with Prof. Virgil Goedken, with whom he worked during college. “I quickly learned that I have the hands of a mathematician, not an experimental chemist, and so I began exploring chemistry using computers,” Bursten said. These interests continued when he attended UW for graduate school and worked under the direction of the late Prof. Richard Fenske.

“He was a phenomenal mentor!” Bursten said. “It was almost like having a parent figure who was also a friend. At the time he was department chair; watching him be such an integral part of running the university significantly affected my choice of accepting positions as a department chair, dean and provost later in my career.”

For his postdoctoral fellowship, Bursten worked with Prof. F. Albert Cotton at Texas A&M University. “He was a very demanding guy who became a very good friend; working with him showed me different ways of thinking.”

Bursten went on to serve as secretary of the inorganic chemistry division and eventually president of the American Chemical Society, where he started the ACS Fellows program to celebrate service, professional excellence, and increased efforts to enhance diversity.

As he considered the path that led to his ACS award, he shared what drives him to make a difference in the lives of other scientists, “The path I have taken has been tremendously shaped by the people I interacted with, and I have taken that lesson to heart in trying to help shape the careers of my students as well as being committed to giving back to my field.