Chemist Brenton DeBoef goes from building molecules to ‘new challenge’ as dean of URI Graduate School

KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 28, 2021 – Brenton DeBoef is an organic chemist who builds molecules. He’s also helping to build the next generation of scientists as the recently appointed dean of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School.

For DeBoef, his commitment to this new mission stems from years of helping students – as a professor of chemistry, as head of the chemistry department’s graduate program, and as associate dean and now as dean of the Graduate School.

“In my lab and my courses, I’m trying to help, educate, and advocate for my students. I’m writing recommendation letters and all the things that a good mentor should do. And I love doing that,” says DeBoef, who lives in Smithfield. “But I love this idea of thinking how we can make the whole ecosystem better for our grad students and our faculty, to fulfill the overall mission of the University. That’s an exciting new challenge and I think it’s something I can contribute to.”

DeBoef, who joined URI in 2005 as an assistant professor of chemistry and has received University excellence awards in teaching and research, is not teaching this semester. But he is still heading his research lab, which has two graduate students and two undergrads.

The lab has had as many as 15 students and 7 grad students in the past. Most of those students have graduated and are now working in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. His duties as dean have made it difficult to mentor as many students on an individual basis, but the trade-off is that he is now able to assist thousands of students as they progress toward advanced degrees.

His research team is best known for inventing new ways to synthesize carbon-carbon and carbon-nitrogen bonds by a process called oxidative coupling, work that has been funded by two National Science Foundation awards and a Pfizer Green Chemistry Award.

Currently, his team is creating molecules that can better detect lung cancer through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The students doing the work are part architect and part engineer, he says, as they try to build a molecule that can be administered to a patient and then selectively highlight the tumor in an MRI scan.

Working with Professor Mitchell Albert of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada, DeBoef’s lab has been the first to show that doughnut-shaped molecules can be used for in vivo (in the body) imaging, using an innovative technique called hyperpolarized xenon-129 MRI. The work is the basis of a grant application pending review by the National Institutes of Health.

“Our goal is to make better diagnostic tools that can detect biochemical phenomena, but at the end of the day it comes down to making new molecules,” says DeBoef. “I always say that we’re not the people who are going to cure some disease, but whatever cure that is invented by some pharmaceutical company, it’s going to be a molecule. Someone has to build that molecule from little pieces that they glue together with chemical bonds. We figure out how to build those molecules.”

Working closely with graduate students over the years, he’s had a firsthand view of their importance in moving the University forward. And he feels there are opportunities to expand the Graduate School’s enrollment, which has held steady for the last decade.

The Graduate School has more than 2,200 students across University, from students seeking doctoral degrees in oceanography, to those in the College of Business’ online master’s program in supply chain management, to those studying library and information studies.

Since being appointed dean in August, he’s been extremely busy as the Graduate School wraps up its fall admission season and works on next year’s admissions cycle. He says the school has a three-fold mission – attract as many qualified students as possible; oversee the students and their academics; and provide student support.

That third role, while one of his favorites, has helped make the fall very hectic.

So far this semester, he’s aided students who received parking tickets because their parking fee waivers were delayed. He’s helped set up a loan program for several dozen international students whose Social Security numbers didn’t come through in time. And, recently, he was handing out French toast at a breakfast for students going through teaching assistant training.

“I’m really interested in the community that we have here, and I want to make sure they feel welcome,” he says. “My goal is for grad school to be some of the best years of their lives.”

One focus is increasing the University’s number of Ph.D. candidates, who make up a quarter of the Graduate School’s enrollment.

“Ph.D. students are intimately tied to research. We’re doing a good job with recruiting faculty to support more Ph.D. students,” he said. “But I think we need an incentive structure to have a higher throughput of Ph.D. students.”

Also, to support more graduate students, DeBoef says, the University can use more new and innovative programs such as College of Business’ Doctorate of Business Administration and its master’s degree in Supply Chain Management and Applied Analytics, along with the College of Environment and Life Sciences’ graduate certificate that was created to support students in Indonesia, many of whom ultimately come to URI as part of the Master’s in Environmental Science and Management program.

He also sees current programs adapting and adding new graduate opportunities, such as the Department of Physics’ master’s degree in quantum computing and the College of Business’ agreement with Széchenyi István University to offer its MBA program in Hungary.

Along with global partnerships, the Graduate School is looking to increase enrollment of international students by focusing on areas where URI has strategic advantages and infrastructure on campus and in the community to support those students. Good examples, he says, are Indonesia and Western Africa.

International students currently make up about a quarter of the graduate student population. During the pandemic, URI’s number of international grad students rose by 12% while many schools saw declines. DeBoef credits the University’s adaptability in meeting students’ needs during those hard times.