Don Cass



Hi, after 37 years of teaching at College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor Maine, I’m moving on to whatever comes next. After a week exploring various towns in Colorado in April 2017, and loving its springtime warmth and sun, we’ve bought a house high on a ridge above a reservoir about 5 miles outside of Fort Collins. Deer are plentiful, a fox is rearing her young in our driveway culvert, and a mountain lion passed through last month. Across the road is a field in which horses and alpaca graze. The days are full of enormous brilliant blue skies and smell-filled dog-walks – at least until the rattlesnakes appear. The eastern horizon seems endless.

I am amazed at the weather. Winter was almost snow-less – Fort Collins (and Denver) sits in a hollow with hills to the south, west and north. (OK, those to the west are more mountains.”) So moisture usually only makes it here from the east. What snow does come quickly melts in the warm sun. It’s amazing how much warmer it is at 6000ft compared to sea level. Cooling by evaporation into the dry air allows the reservoir to freeze when the air is above freezing. Winds can be strong – think “crossing half the country only to be squeezed through the mountains.” And their expansion as they blow upslope – or their compression as they blow downslope – cools or heats them noticeably.

I’m not quite sure what retirement will bring. I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts about changes at COA over the years – I hope to share them at some point. And I have some chemistry-related articles I’d like to finish up. Then I hope to polish up lots of the “course” sections of this site – hoping that others may find them useful. I also hope to add a place where we can ask each other about things that we don’t understand as well as we’d like to. So stay tuned!

For those of you who don’t know me, here’s some background:

By training, I’m a physical chemist: BA from Carleton and a PhD from UC Berkeley. My dissertation focused on spectroscopic studies of phase transitions in cell membranes. After grad school, I taught for two years at Kenyon College – but was disappointed by its strong disciplinary focus and by how many students “didn’t really want to be there.” The woman who ran the college’s health center was from Maine and suggested I look into College of the Atlantic – a new (1972), small (300 student), experimental, interdisciplinary school in Bar Harbor. The next week, an ad appeared saying that they were looking for a faculty member with training in chemistry. Kismet! I applied, was selected, and stayed for 36 years. If COA had departments, I would have been ‘the chemistry department” – but that doesn’t quite fit – since faculty here try (or use to try) to wear ‘human ecologist’ hats as much as possible. Indeed, COA grants only one undergraduate degree, the B.A. in Human Ecology – the study of how humans interact with their worlds.

My work at COA  focused on how chemistry can help us understand how our world impacts us and how we impact our world. I was (and am) interested in why we believe this odd notion that every “thing” (?) is made up of these little “atoms” bouncing to and fro, in what such a perspective DOESN’T explain, and how it may evolve into something more useful. How this perspective can explain why you can see through windows and not walls? How does this perspective explain where the atmosphere and the oceans have come from – and where they go to?  How can this perspective make us more responsible citizens?

To me, the latter includes becoming more aware:
* of the materials that we use,
* of the sources of those materials,
* of the impacts that the production, use and disposal of such materials has on our world, and
* of the impacts that such impacts, in turn, have on us.

Some of my current guiding principles include:
* nobody can do nothing
* the non-human world isn’t any kinder or more thoughtful than the human
* if you give them a chance, most people will try to do good things
* screw-ups are inevitable.
* so diversity is good in that it limits the impacts of any screw-ups..

More of my background can be found on the “my background” page.



  1. Hi Don! I don’t know if you remember me, but I do remember you. I was at Kenyon the two years you were there, and I had P-Chem class junior year with you. That was a great class, and whenever I get together at a reunion with Steve Bird or Sharon Lando or Tom Pappenhagen, we’ll talk about you, too. I’m glad to see you are still at the COA. I don’t know if you remember, but my wife and I dropped in to say hello to you there while we were on our honeymoon in August of 1979. You had just arrived there and were still settling in. At the time I believe it was just a visiting appointment, but you’ve obviously turned it into much more. As for me, to make a long story short, I retired in June of last year after teaching in the chemical engineering department at Ohio University in Athens for 22 years and working for NASA in Cleveland for six years prior to that. I hadn’t planned to retire this young, but various circumstances involving state budgets, university budgets, buyout offers, and lots of scenario analyses led to the decision. I now live in Las Cruces, New Mexico (another story), where I teach part time in the chemical engineering department here and also consult with one of the research groups here.

    Comment by Daniel Gulino — May 18, 2013 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  2. I watched your hour’s of stills & videos, from our amazing Grand Canyon Raft trip. WOW! I loved every second reliving our amazing experience. What terrific folks – guests & guides! Thank you for putting this together for everyone to enjoy. Enjoy your retirement & yournewhome state.
    Toni & Steve Dickover, Noblesville, Indiana

    Comment by Toni Dickover — September 4, 2017 @ 4:55 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Don! Congrats on your retirement. I tried responding to your email with the information you requested, but it bounced back to me.

    Comment by Ginny — September 26, 2017 @ 1:39 pm | Reply

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