Clemmer makes science an art form

(08-26-2010)

An artist stands poised before his work imagines the outcome and prepares himself and all the elements at his disposal as he makes his first move toward success. The artist in David E. Clemmer expresses himself through science. Nationally recognized in the world of chemistry and physics, Clemmer draws on his background as an artist's son, musician, and Adams State College laboratories to create new innovations and groundbreaking research in the field of chemistry.

David Clemmer

Clemmer, the Robert and Marjorie Mann Chair of Chemistry at Indiana University Bloomington, is the Adams State 2010 Outstanding Alumnus. He will receive the award at this year's Alumni Banquet and Annual Meeting at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8, in the Student Union Building, room 131. Call Adams State Alumni Relations at 719-587-8110 to reserve your ticket.

Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Kay Watkins says Clemmer is in the top ten percent of Ph.D.'s in terms of his research and his ability to come up with creative ways to explore complex systems. Clemmer's research addresses fundamental problems at the interface of chemistry and biology and is primarily focused on developing new technologies for analyzing the complexity of living systems at a molecular level. This work has led to more than 150 scientific publications that have been cited more than 5,000 times and has led to 10 patents.

"I was raised by a community of people who are humble and generous. I don't expect to win awards and am always surprised when our work is recognized by others," which means Clemmer has been surprised on a variety of occasions. He has been honored with research and teaching awards from the National Science, Alfred P. Sloan, and Camille Dreyfus Foundations, as well as the Biemann Medal for contributions to measurements of molecular mass. Popular Science included Clemmer on their "10 Most Brilliant List". He received Indiana University Bloomington's prestigious 2009 Tracy M. Sonneborn Award, in recognition of his exceptionally creative and impactful research.

The inventions from Clemmer's research group have led to him becoming a scientific cofounder of Beyond Genomics, a systems biology company aimed at understanding the molecular origins of diseased states, and founder of Predictive Physiology and Medicine, a biotechnology company that provides detailed measurements for personalized medicine.

"I am lucky to be able study what interests me," Clemmer said. "I have a lot of fun, even if the work is perceived as hard by others."

Mutual admiration

Clemmer was nominated for the alumni award by two former professors and a colleague who is also an Adams State graduate: Emeritus Professor of Mathematics Ron Loser; Stephen J. Valentine '95, associate scientist at IU; and Watkins.

"I was late coming to science," Clemmer said. First a music major, he soon found himself "surrounded" by really "bright people." He remembers spending hours in the science building with fellow students. "I realized the beauty of solving problems." Classmates Bryan Carr, Marvin Hawkins and Mona Young along with chemistry professors (now all emeritus) Dr. Neil Rudolph, Dr. Mel Armold, Watkins, and Loser were "incredible influences." It was a challenge the students enjoyed. "We had the feeling that we could solve any problem if we could define it and the key variables -- an exciting time."

In his multivariable calculus class, Loser said Clemmer wrote his theme paper based on guitar chords. "It was very mathematical and creative," Loser said. "He could integrate the breadth of his interests." Watkins agrees with Loser assessment, "David was exceptional as an undergraduate student. However, I didn't realize how reactive he was until he ran his own research program at Indiana University."

Dr. Steve Valentine and David Clemmer

One of Clemmer's closest collaborators is Dr. Steve Valentine Adams State class of '95. They met by chance when Clemmer came back to Alamosa to sing with The Yard Dogs at the Sunshine festival. During one open practice, Armold and Clemmer went on a "beer run" and "Steve was stocking the shelves when Mel introduced us."

The chance encounter led Valentine to become Clemmer's first Ph.D. student. Together they have published 40 papers, completed several marathons, and successfully commercialized technologies that they have collaborated to develop. Clemmer said Valentine is "a true humanitarian and technical wizard."

Valentine said his first impressions of Clemmer -- "very driven and hard working individual, and extremely smart" -- were confirmed within the first six months of graduate school. "We worked very hard to design and construct a scientific instrument in my first semester of graduate school. We were collecting data by the end of the semester."

The duo's current research includes identifying emerging markers for certain types of cancer, found in a patient's blood or urine, or saliva. "It is very promising and although moving slowly, is starting to progress." The patient's genome level can determine a risk for cancer by measuring the protein level of a cell. Typically, a routine blood test measures 16 different proteins. Clemmer's research has helped identity thousands of different proteins, as well as uses for these protein measurements.

"David sees the end of a project from the beginning," Valentine said. "He has a real gift for scientific discovery. He has an incredible amount of scientific intuition." He added that Clemmer's ability to interpret scientific results is "remarkable and truly inspiring. The scientific success that we have enjoyed through the years is stimulating and serves as motivation for different projects."

Parallel of science and art

Clemmer sees the parallel of science and art. "You can't ignore the boundaries of physical laws but can find creative ways to solve problems, to view a problem differently." The starving artist motif can apply to scientist searching for funding. "I still have ideas no one likes, and often those are the ones I love."

Art has always been a part of his life. His father, Ed Clemmer, an Adams State emeritus artist taught art classes on campus for over 20 years. Ed Clemmer often emphasized that negative space in art should carry as much weight as the positive. "It concerns me -- seeing something that is not there," said David Clemmer.

An only child of Ed and MaryAnn, retired Alamosa elementary school teacher, Clemmer said he had advantages and strived to please his father who had "high standards and ideals about the difference between good and excellent."

Inspired by Donatello's and Michelangelo's David sculptures, Ed Clemmer created one "intuitively" of his son. In 2006, during an artist's lecture and reception on campus, Ed retold his story of the sculpture. He said Michelangelo's David originally "guarded" the people of Florence. Now Ed Clemmer's "David" guards the residents of Alamosa, standing near Alamosa's east entrance. It was the first time David had heard the story. "I had tears in my eyes."

Another Ed Clemmer sculpture, Mountain Family, is located outside Richardson Hall. The three individuals, Ed, MaryAnn and David are blended into one figure. The elder Clemmers now live in Bloomington, Ind., and help care for David Clemmer's and his wife's, Wendy R. Saffell-Clemmer; three daughters Madeline (9); Isabella (7); Grace (5). The Mountain Family sculpture is a valid indication of the harmony and love shared among them all.

Inspired by other greats

In June, Clemmer and his family crossed the Mighty Mississippi and enjoyed a traveling vacation through Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. "Alamosa still feels like home," Clemmer said. The first stop was Grand Junction, Colo., where Clemmer met his friend Jeff Owsley Adams State grad'86, and worked out a plan to run the Kokopelli Marathon, 148 miles. Clemmer quit at mile 38 because of back problems. "It was up to Owsley to finish it. And, he did!" Clemmer, and his wife, started running marathons years ago and have finished six. Clemmer's interest in running was piqued at Adams State when rooming with cross-country athletes. "Vigil's runners would stand is small groups and talk about how to win. I think all of us wanted to be them."

He said he has never been disciplined enough to run three miles a day. When there is the goal of a marathon, Clemmer finds the time to train. "David has even convinced me that I should be doing more to take care of my physical health," Valentine said. "He works to bring together different individuals by creating running groups within the Chemistry Department at IU."

On the road, Clemmer's family stopped in Abique, N.M., and visited Georgia O'Keefe's former home and studio. "For her, it was very important that her work be original." Clemmer has the same ideals, "When working in the lab I question, 'is this really mine, or a derivative of someone else's work.'"

According to Clemmer, he has adopted a teaching method used by his father. "A student would be concentrating on a finely detailed drawing and dad would draw a dark charcoal line through the middle of the drawing. Some students hated this, but it got them to see more than the details they were caught up with. I'd like to think science teachers can draw an intellectual dark line through the details of scientific thought."

Another skill learned first from his father and honed by future professors, is the ability to really look. When reviewing a student's paper, Clemmer will often hold it up and just stare at it, examining it. "David often sits beside his graduate students while crafting their first scientific articles," Valentine said. "He also spends hours reviewing and critiquing scientific presentations."

His love of "great teachers" is not limited to his career discipline. Clemmer is grateful for former music, science, art, and literature teachers, from all levels of education. "I have a gift of finding good teachers." He always thought he would teach at Adams State. "I've been sidetracked with my research lab. Maybe I'll get the chance to come back and teach one day."

"David is without a doubt one of the most talented chemistry majors Adams State had graduate in the thirty years I taught at ASC," Watkins said. "He is an outstanding alumnus any college or university would be proud to identify with this award."

By Linda Relyea