My Giving Story: Mike Hunnicutt

A chemistry fellowship endowed by a fellowship of chemists

Halfway through his junior year at Duke, Mike Hunnicutt ’80, Ph.D.’84, P’15 was struggling. He was a B-C student whose dreams of medical school had gone up in smoke because of his grades. Hunnicutt was on track to graduate with a degree in chemistry, but he needed an independent study course to get there.

Resolved to finish his undergraduate career strong, Hunnicutt visited several chemistry labs in search of independent study. It was when he met Charlie Lochmüller that his life and academic career changed for the better — for good.

“He was a big man — over six feet tall, kind of heavy, a New Yorker who graduated from Fordham, gruff,” Hunnicutt said. “But we hit it off. I felt really fortunate to have an opportunity.”

That was the beginning of a productive, collegial friendship. Hunnicutt did finish strong, thriving under Lochmüller’s mentorship. He was a natural in the lab, and the professor recognized his potential. Lochmüller set up a part-time job for Hunnicutt at Research Triangle Institute that carried him through his senior year and resulted in a job offer after graduation.

But Lochmüller was just getting started with Hunnicutt. He encouraged the new grad to take the GREs and apply to The Graduate School at Duke to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. Hunnicutt took his mentor’s advice and was accepted at Duke — but without any financial support. By luck or by a benevolent hand, funding appeared a week before the semester began, and Hunnicutt officially became one of Lochmüller’s graduate students.

Head of the family

Hunnicutt’s experience with Lochmüller was not unique. Many graduate students in the lab of “CHL,” as his students referred to him, feel to this day like members of a large extended family. When Lochmüller received the American Chemical Society’s distinguished award in chromatography, Hunnicutt was part of a group of grad students who drove from Durham to Denver to be there when he accepted the award. When Lochmüller retired in 2006, some 30 of his former graduate students attended the celebration.

CHL’s retirement party.

So when Hunnicutt wanted to create a chemistry fellowship in honor of Lochmüller, who died in in 2013, it was no surprise he reached out to the CHL extended family to join in. Joel Harris ’72, June Mullaney Mader Ph.D.’86 and Alan Colborn Ph.D.’85 contributed the initial funding for the Charles H. Lochmüller Fellowship Fund, which specifies a preference for doctoral candidates in analytical chemistry.

The founding agreement states that the fund was “created in honor of Dr. Charles H. Lochmüller to recognize his scholarly work and vision in the field of Analytical Chemistry and Separation Sciences, his leadership and service to his colleagues in the Duke University Department of Chemistry and the American Chemical Society, and his unconditional devotion to the students and visiting scholars of all ranks who passed through his research laboratory. The creation of the fellowship is intended to leave a legacy that acknowledges the profound and lasting impact on the lives of those he touched.”

“The breadth of his research ideas and scholarship made a unique and lasting impact on my own scientific career,” said Harris, a longtime chemistry professor at the University of Utah. “Charles was more than a professional colleague. He was a close friend to me and to my wife, Frances, a friend with whom we shared our home, trips to the Utah desert and countless long conversations.”

“He taught me the resilience to stick with the program and gave me confidence as a woman in a male-dominated field,” said Mader, who parlayed a 20-year career in the pharmaceutical industry into a consulting business. “Duke and CHL provided formative grad school experience that set me up to have a great career. I want to keep his legacy as Duke professor, former chair and analytical chemistry leader alive. It also made me feel more connected to my research family.”

Mike, you enjoyed a long career in the pharmaceutical industry. Considering that you now are a fifth-year chemistry faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, why did you initially choose industry instead of academia?

When I left Charlie’s lab, he was disappointed because he wanted me to go into the academy. I wasn’t certain I could do that. I’m so glad to see the Certificate in College Teaching course in The Graduate School now that trains people to work in the academy. The evolution of The Graduate School in the last 10 years has been phenomenal.

I had a great career at Proctor & Gamble, and then at Wyeth, and then finished up at Pfizer. I had a lot of things to be thankful about and was financially very fortunate in my industrial career. Throughout my 25-plus years in industry, when I changed jobs I’d always reach back to Charlie or Joel and they always supported me.

What is it like for you to finally teach?

I approach it with the spirit of the inspiration and opportunity that Charlie gave me. It’s an opportunity to find yourself and what you love.

Why did you and your colleagues decide on a fellowship?

I’m on The Graduate School Board of Visitors, and it’s a fundraising priority. Charlie took me into his lab when other people could have said I didn’t have the credentials to do it. He opened the door.

I owe a lot to Charlie. I had always dreamed about a way of thanking him. When I got involved on the Board of Visitors, it made me think about how blessed and fortunate I was to be able to go to graduate school at Duke. That all came about because of Charlie and my parents. Now it’s our chance to give back.

The Graduate School welcomes additional contributions to the Lochmüller Fund. Email Angela Eberts for more information.

TAGS: Giving and Impact Stories

About the author

Greg Jenkins

Greg’s work includes publications, proposals, reports, collateral materials and web content. He joined University Development in July 2012 after a stint with Duke Medicine Marketing & Creative Services. Before that, Greg worked as editor of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, and spent more than a decade as a sportswriter covering everything from Little League to ACC basketball. A North Carolina native and lifelong resident, he holds a BA in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and lives in Durham with his wonderful wife and two young sons.