Magazine Feature / People

Retiring professor reflects on life in the lab

From molecular structures to atmospheric ozone, painting stubborn window sashes or carrying a briefcase on the back of a bicycle, Professor Donald Stedman has had his eye on the next big thing.

After spending the last 25 years at the University of Denver, the 65-year-old chemist and creator will retire from teaching. But “retirement” isn’t likely to slow him down, as Stedman moves full time into the laboratory as a research professor, continuing his groundbreaking work in vehicle emissions studies without all those faculty meetings.

Before a standing room audience in an Olin Hall lecture hall, Stedman addressed more than 100 students, faculty and staff May 22, summing up his career with the lecture, “A Career of Inventing Things.”

As full of puns and jokes as chemical equations, Stedman traced his life’s work of looking for a better way of doing things.

“I always thought that everyone invented things,” he said. “I always thought that inventing things was easy, but knowing for sure that you had invented something new was hard.”

Turning off the lights at times to demonstrate the glow of phosphorus in oxygen and using an audio device to alert to the presence of carbon dioxide, Stedman raced through a litany of inventions that highlight his life’s work in science.

He regaled the audience with tales of how industrial giant 3M paid him for an invention he came up with in minutes — a disposable tiny paintbrush for getting at those hard to reach places in old fashioned sash windows.

And then, there are the inventions that only a chemist could fully understand: the nickel carbonyl detector, the permeation tubes for gases and sulfur monitor.

His involvement in auto emissions dates back to a job in 1971 at Ford Motor Company where the British-born scientist worried he couldn’t accept the post because of his immigration status.

“They looked at me and said, ‘Henry Ford can take care of that,’” Stedman said. “And I guess he did.”

That early work led to a long career in the study of emissions, air pollution and gas detection.

“I was on the committee that helped ban smoking on airplanes,” he mentioned as an aside. He said it was “probably the most important thing I did.”

After a tour with the University of Michigan, Stedman was lured to the University of Denver in 1983 where his work on a Colorado state government supported project led to an auto emissions test that can detect gases with sensors erected along highways by mobile vans. The patent has generated some $3.6 million in royalties and, more important, help lead to cleaner air worldwide.

“This invention has the potential for doing really good things for a lot of people,” he said.

And then, there’s the briefcase bike rack. For the professor known for biking everywhere instead of polluting the air, the practical device locks a briefcase in place on the fender. He’s never patented the idea, but it’s one handy contraption.

“I’ve fallen off my bicycle several times,” he said, as the demonstration bike he set up toppled. “But the briefcase stays on.”

Just part of a career spent inventing things.

Read about Stedman’s Smart Sign.

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