Rich Gurney in Chemistry Lab

Professor Gurney: Simmons Students Improve the World

Did a particular experience or person inspire you to pursue your academic discipline?

The summer after completing organic chemistry, I was invited to champion a research project in synthesizing materials used in the production of flame retardant plastics for Amoco Chemical (now BP) at my undergraduate institution. The undergraduate research experience was an epiphany, leading me to three important realizations. First and foremost, organic chemistry was highly intuitive but the manner in which the material is taught was unnecessarily confusing. Second, the standard laboratory curriculum that I was taught was devoid of any opportunity for critical thinking or skill building. Third, conducting research as an undergraduate, in my opinion, was the single best way to learn chemistry.

What are your favorite areas of specialization?

Democratizing opportunities and access to undergraduate research to create a workforce whose diversity mirrors our society. Educating women to become research-empowered, responsible global citizens. I specifically focus my day-to-day research with undergraduates on benign materials design for human health and the environment.

What is one of the most interesting topics in your field now?

Without a doubt, the most interesting and provocative topic in my field is the toxins in our consumer products or what I have coined "toxic consumables," which is the focus of my Boston course. Until the U.S. Congress passed The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, on June 22, 2016, the FDA and EPA were not empowered to regulate peer-reviewed, scientifically studied toxicants that served as functional additives (preservatives, fragrances, etc.) to our personal care products. 

Our class has partnered with the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, MA to educate and study the widespread socioeconomic and health impacts of these toxic consumables in our Boston community. Unfortunately, the current U.S. administration is defunding and dismantling the EPA and FDA, which will stymie any potential societal gains intended from the passage of the new Chemical Safety Act. 

What do you find most rewarding about your work with Simmons students?

In my 14 years, I have witnessed firsthand that Simmons students have a thirst for knowledge with a focus to empower themselves to improve the world and the human condition. Our students champion equity and inclusiveness both within and outside the laboratory. Working with students having this drive and determination is highly rewarding as I know my efforts to help them learn how to learn are highly appreciated.  

What three qualities most consistently describe Simmons students?

Drive. Empathy. Determination.

Is participation in internships, study abroad, or conferences important? Do stipends help make those experiences more accessible?

Real-world experiences, be it internships, professional presentations and attendance at conferences, or studying abroad, are critically important. In my opinion, undergraduate research is the key stepping stone to gain experience required to apply to all of these opportunities. Without stipends to pay for student time to work on undergraduate research, students must balance a heavy course load, a job, volunteer work, AND undergraduate research, which is too much for most. Therefore, stipends are the lynchpin for the key stepping stone in an undergraduate’s climb toward real-world experiences which launch their careers.

Can you recommend a good current book in your field for a lay reader?

How about three?
  • Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan.
  • Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies, and Environmental Health by Alissa Cordner.
  • Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel. 
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College of Arts & Sciences


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