Dr. Doug Neckers
Doug Neckers is a distinguished professor who was one of the nation’s pioneers in 3-D printing. He has a message for America: We need to take science seriously if we want to survive.
But he also has a message for his fellow scientists: They need to do a better job communicating with their countrymen. In the age of COVID-19, that may be a matter of national life and death.
“We need to meet the listener on a playing field where he or she starts with a fundamental interest,” he said. Neckers thinks that may be especially true in his field, chemistry. “The public doesn’t know what chemistry is, or how really fascinating it can be.”
Suddenly, with the nation and world in the grip of a pandemic and a vaccine everyone’s top priority, there is an intense new focus on science — and too little understanding of what science is.
“Yes, we have to solve the challenges brought on by the coronavirus, and provide safety for the citizens of the world from it,” he said in an interview near his home in Perrysburg.
But that’s not enough “If we are to have a better new reality, we have to first get rid of the irrational behavior of the old,” he said, “We have to remedy the very poor and unproductive educations too many young Americans receive. It we don’t do this and do it soon, America’s degradation and decline will continue.”
“And at some point, it may be irreversible.”
Neckers, who was the McMaster Distinguished Research Professor when he retired from Bowling Green State University, grew up in upstate New York and spent most of his professional career in Ohio. But he got his start at tiny Hope College in Holland, Michigan, a liberal arts school with a long list of distinguished alumni.
“Why there?” Well, I’m Dutch (the school was founded by the Dutch Reformed Church), my mother was from Holland originally, and all the rest of my family, save for one cousin, had gone there.”
That’s where his interest in organic chemistry began. After he graduated in 1960 and Neckers left to earn his doctorate at the University of Kansas, where he had been recruited by fellow Hope alum Calvin Vanderwerf, who later became president of Hope. (Neckers later wrote his mentor’s biography.)
After stints in New Mexico and back at Hope, Professor Neckers then arrived in Bowling Green in 1974 as head of the chemistry department – where he soon became an unabashed fan of the Toledo Blade and its then-science editor, Mike Woods. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I read The Blade. The paper actually had stories about chemistry, and they were fundamental, teaching stories.”
That powerfully affected him. “For the first time in my career, The Blade made me think that what I was doing was pretty valuable.” He also had an epiphany: Yes, the press, he realized could help not only explain the science and let the public know about significant discoveries.
But it could also “help scientists at work on critical problems keep the faith that what they are doing could be really valuable.”
That was before he came to know the late Paul Block Jr., the newspaper’s publisher, who was also an organic chemist. The men became close friends, “as compatible as scientific birds of a feather,” and stayed close till the older man died in 1987.
Though Doug Neckers retired from BGSU in 2009 after teaching for 35 years, he is, at 82, still full of energy, enthusiasm and ideas. After helping educate generations of organic chemists, many of whom are now practicing around the world, he saw the potential that 3-D printing had for both science and medicine.
He founded the Center for Photochemical Sciences at BGSU, then started his own business, Spectra Group LTD., which began by producing 3-D medical models to help physicians and surgeons and expanded from there. The investors sold the business to Form Labs Ohio a few years ago, but he was proud it used his technology to produce thousands of swabs for COVID-19 tests this spring.
Now, he is hard at work on an ambitious book, tentatively titled Science, a Pandemic, and a New Technology, that will cover the history of science, the impact of the virus, and the way in which 3-D printing is being used to help fight it.