June 10, 2011

Gowers' gift helps address chemistry needs

by Greg Scott

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A Distinguished Alumnus is teaming with Southern Illinois University Carbondale's administration to fund state-of-the-art research equipment for instructors and students in the chemistry and biochemistry department.
Bob Gower, a two-degree SIUC alumnus and chair of Ensysce Biosciences in Houston, communicates regularly with the University’s chemistry professors. When the West Frankfort native was informed of the department’s equipment deficiencies, he immediately made mention of the issue in a subsequent meeting with SIUC Chancellor Rita Cheng.
“It’s pretty inefficient to have equipment constantly going down. I know it’s a problem that can’t exist; especially at a great University like SIU that is striving for recognition in various aspects of research,” Gower says. “Therefore, I told Chancellor Cheng that I would be willing to help if the University was willing to do the same.”
Cheng presented a proposal to Bob and Beth Gower for $75,000, to establish a Technology Fund in the chemistry and biochemistry department. Their commitment would be matched dollar-for-dollar by the University. The Gowers obliged. Therefore, $150,000 will fund the acquisition and maintenance of equipment for instruction and research. Additionally, the fund provides the department and college with a long-term resource plan for equipping and upgrading its teaching labs.
“This is a wonderful partnership that responds to a great need in this department,” Cheng said. “Cutting-edge equipment and technology are vital to the educational process. The Gowers’ generosity provides valuable support to our faculty’s teaching and research efforts, and will help our students be better prepared when they enter their professions.”
Gower, a researcher himself, says the gift is significant and beneficial to the chemistry department.
“I’m particularly pleased that Chancellor Cheng was interested, and like myself, wanted to address the problem,” he says. “As a matter of fact, she was already on top of the issue just weeks after assuming her role at the University. I was quite impressed with her commitment to strengthen our chemistry department.”
Jay C. Means, dean of the College of Science, says the funds provided by the Gowers and Chancellor Cheng will have an immediate impact this fall semester. The department is purchasing a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer and high performance liquid chromatograph to train advanced chemistry majors in the laboratory setting. Means went on to point out that significant gifts such as this are “unique and very much appreciated during a time of fiscal uncertainty.”
The gift will assist the University in preparing students for careers after college, according to Gary R. Kinsel, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
“These funds will go a long way in allowing us to provide modern chemical instruments for our students to use in their laboratory experiences. This experience is critical because they’ll need to know how to use this equipment when they join the workforce,” Kinsel says. “This definitely helps move our program forward.”
Rickey N. McCurry, vice chancellor for institutional advancement and chief executive officer of the SIU Foundation, says: “Bob and Beth Gower have historically been quite generous in supporting SIU Carbondale. Dr. Gower is appreciative of his own experience at Southern, and is particularly fond of our chemistry department. Furthermore, the support demonstrated by the Gowers and Chancellor Cheng indicates a true commitment to provide essential resources that will benefit our students well into the future.”
Gower, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from SIU Carbondale in 1958 and 1960, knows first-hand the importance of research in the business world. One of his most telling accomplishments occurred after he became president and CEO of Lyondell Petrochemical Co., which was losing approximately $200 million a year when Gower took over in 1985. The SIU alumnus transformed the Houston-based firm into one of the 100 Best Managed Companies in the World, as named by Industry Week Magazine. Petrochemical Co. became a publicly traded New York Stock Exchange company in 1989.
Prior to his success at Lyondell, Gower held various leadership positions in Sinclair Oil and Atlantic Richfield, major oil and chemistry companies in the 1960s. Also, in 2000, Gower worked closely with the late Richard Smalley, a Rice University professor who, along with two associates, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996, in forming Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. He served as president and CEO until merging CNI into another company, Unidym Corp., and continues his involvement as an investor.
A recipient of the 1996 SIU Distinguished Alumni Award, Gower relishes the opportunity to support his alma mater.
“I have enjoyed some reasonable success. But I came from a pretty humble beginnings and I know there are students at Southern with a similar background,” he says. “I know it’s an overused statement, but I truly feel indebted to SIU. So many people paid attention and provided encouragement to me as a youth in West Frankfort, at SIU, and in the church and community.
“When you are a beneficiary of such actions, the least you can do is give back if you’re in the position to do so.”