Don Cass

My Background

Just in case you’d like to know more about me, here’s some history….

I was born in Niagara Falls NY in 1951. My dad (Oliver) was a chemist working for DuPont in Niagara Falls. The cheap electricity from the hydroelectric plants built to take adavantage of the great water drop of the Niagara River at the falls was used to electrolyse salty water (brine) from NY’s finger lakes region to make chlorine gas. My dad’s work was mostly devising new ways to use the chlorine to produce chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents such as those used in dry-cleaning or paint strippers. He interviewed my mom for her first job after she gradauted as a chem major from Ohio Wesleyan (unusual for a woman in the 1940’s). They played tennis and skied, fell in love and married. Soon thereafter appeared my brother (Oliver Jr, now a gastroenterologist in Minneapolis MN) and then I appeared two years later (5/14/51).

I lived a pretty normal 1950’s suburban childhood. Lots of black and white TV watching and time spent playing war games in the woods around the neighborhood. Summers included time at a cottage we owned on Lake Erie, with the opportunity to see its over-fertilized algae and fish kills close up. Though I was never allowed to have a chemistry set, my childhood was filled with trips to science museums (often tagging along with dad as he went to some business meeting), and it just seemed natural that I became a bit of a science nerd. (You know, the kids running the AV service in high school.)

Dad died from a heart attack in 1967. It wasn’t really too surprising, since he’d always smoked, loved eating the fatty parts of roasts and never lost the weight he gained after he ruptured his appendix about the time I was born. (He only survived due to the intervention of the then recently discoverred penicillin!)

I graduated from high school in 1969 and went on to Carleton College in Northfield MN, just in time to take part in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Some term I think I couldn’t take both chem & physics and picked chem (with almost a double major in math) and finished up working a term at Argonne National Lab on chlorophyll complexes. In between classes we played a lot of bridge, tennis, and I became a bit of a squash fanatic.

After graduating in 1973, I went on graduate school at UC Berkeley (picking a large department because I didn’t really know what I wanted to work on, and because there was lots of squash to be played in the Bay area). There I was attracted to the personalities in Herb Strauss’s research group – all using vibrational spectroscopy to probe molecular structures. While Herb mostly worked on hydrocarbons (“pseudorotations” of cyclohexane), the research money at the time was in biology, so I was told to look into some biological systems. I ended up looking a phase transitions of soaps as a model for similar transitions that occur in more complicated biological membranes near the temperatures at which critters live. After some collaborations with Paul Hansma at UC Santa Barabara using electron tunneling to study vibrations of monolayers (which got me my first publication – in Science) , I received my PhD in 1977.

After Berkeley, I accepted a 2 year sabbatical replacement position teaching chemistry at Kenyon College in Ohio. The guy I replaced had also headed their wilderness orientation trips for freshman, so I took over that task and indulged a camping fanaticism that had begun in the California Sierras. A group of students also needed an advisor to form a climbing club, so I began a bit of rock climbing.

I was a bit discouraged by the lack of motivation of many Kenyon students, and was looking forward to a new career, when the woman who ran the health service told me about COA, and its ad appeared for a chemist the following week. I applied, was accepted, and have been here ever since.

Soon after arriving, one of my students who was working on her final project at Jackson Lab set me up to meet their electron microscopist, Suzy Taylor. After we both enjoyed our first date skiing around Witch Hole Pond at night and in the rain, we knew we were made for each other. We were married at a log cabin we skied into in a blizzard. Our daughter Mandy was born on Halloween in 1982, became a horse-woamn through college at Mt Holyoke. She then went on a Fulbright to the Australian Museum, and got her PhD at Cornell. She’s now a researcher & professor at Kennesaw State in Georgia. Our son Kim was born in 1984 and started playing jazz bass in grade school. After graduating from the  New England Conservatory, he’s continued to compose and play jazz in San Francisco and now NYC – while also working at the Brooklyn Bridge Botanical Garden. .

If you want some pictures, see this: dons-life

TrackBack URI

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: