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International acclaim: Dr. David Lewis wins 2019 Markovnikov Medal in Russia

| Denise Olson (story); Glen Mabie (video)

Imagine riding your bike or driving your car to campus without tires. It’s not possible.

You can thank Sergei Lebedev for your smooth ride. He was the Russian chemist who, in 1910, invented the synthetic rubber used to make your tires, an invention that has literally driven the modern economy.

David Lewis

Dr. David Lewis

Many key contributions to the field of chemistry happen to have been made by Russians. Specifically, in the field of organic chemistry, the history of Russian influence is hard to overstate, especially according to one of the world’s leading researchers in the history of organic chemistry, Dr. David Lewis, professor of chemistry at UW-Eau Claire.

And it seems that Russia appreciates his work.

In January, Lewis became the seventh recipient and first non-Russian to earn an award from Moscow State University, established to honor outstanding achievements in the field of organic chemistry. The Markovnikov Medal was presented to Lewis at the Markovnikov Readings in Krasnovidovo, Moskovskii Oblast, Russia, where he was invited to give the keynote address.

David Lewis Medal

Markovnikov Medal, awarded by the Moscow State University for outstanding achievements in the field of organic chemistry, awarded to David Lewis in January 2019.

The medal came as a bit of a surprise to Lewis himself, who thought he’d been invited to give the typical plenary lecture.

“When I arrived at the conference and saw the program, I realized that I was to give a Medal Lecture. It was a very pleasant surprise to say the least,” Lewis says.

The past year has been one of multiple accolades for Lewis, who also received the 2018 HIST Award for Outstanding Achievement in the History of Chemistry, presented by the Division of the History of Chemistry of the American Chemistry Society. This award is recognition for work in advancing the knowledge and appreciation of the history of the chemical sciences, the center of Lewis’s research.

For over 20 years, Lewis’s work has examined the people and places forming the roots of organic chemistry. Time and again, the path led him to Kazan Federal University in central Russia, the location that Lewis has come to refer to as “the cradle of organic chemistry.”

According to Lewis, several significant discoveries took place at Kazan, elevating it as a cornerstone of growth in the science.

“About a quarter of the reactions our chemistry students learn in their sophomore chemistry classes are named after Russian chemists from Kazan,” Lewis says. “The influence of the Kazan School of Chemistry eventually encompassed the entire Russian Empire, all from a very humble beginning in what many viewed as a rural backwater.”

The type of influence and acclaim that Lewis has earned in Russia, and at Kazan in particular, is the type of advantage that Lewis wanted to share with his students. Beginning in 2015, Lewis started bringing students along to Russia with him as part of the Faculty-Led International Immersion Experiences Program.

Supported by funding through the differential tuition plan known as the Blugold Commitment, Lewis and two separate cohorts of research students have had access to rare documents and artifacts of organic chemistry — access that even some other Russian chemists and researchers are not granted.

David Lewis and research student team in Russia 2017

From left, Sergei Raspel, Dylan Rothbauer, David Lewis, Anna Giebink and Carly Goedhart at St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow.

“The work we conducted in the museums gave the students important insight into all the topics they learned in their sophomore chemistry classes,” Lewis says. “They could really see where all this information came from, the people it came from.”

Dylan Rothbauer, a senior biochemistry major from Cadott, traveled to Russia with Lewis in 2017 and calls the opportunity the single most transformative experience of his life.

“Being able to see the places where the famous chemists studied, to actually walk in the laboratories in which they did their historic work really made me realize that these extraordinary chemists of old were just people, people like you and me,” Rothbauer says. “It helped me to understand that someday I might even be able to do work like they did, work that can help change the world.”

During this same trip, Carly Goedhart, a 2018 chemistry graduate from Maple, was assigned the research task of translating several archaic documents into modern Russian, and then into English. Like Rothbauer, she was awestruck by the access the team was given.

“We were allowed access to documents that had never been seen before by westerners’ eyes. We got to go into the museum at Kazan Federal University and touch journals and papers handwritten by Butlerov and his scribes,” Goedhart says, referring to a famous chemist responsible for many key discoveries and reactions.

All four students on the 2017 trip were able to present their research on an international platform, which is quite rare for undergraduates. Additionally, making connections to such a wide field of international chemists through Lewis has provided the students professional networking that is simply unheard of for undergraduates.

“Our association with Dr. Lewis got us invited to a VIP banquet with all the speakers at the seminar,” Rothbauer says. “We were able to meet and form connections with some of the most impressive chemical minds in the world.”

While the academic and professional impacts of these research experiences are clear, some of the personal impact is still revealing itself to the lucky students who were able to experience Russia in this way.

“In many ways, it changed my life,” Goedhart says. “I have traveled to 11 other countries since Russia — people now know me as a spontaneous jet-setter. I openly embrace new cultures after my immersion in Kazan, and the trip inspired me to continue as a student of global education. My experience with research in Russia widened my world to endless possibilities. I really can't thank Dr. Lewis enough for doing that for me.”

For Lewis as well, amid all the recognition and international acclaim for his extensive research and expertise, it seems that the personal impact of these experiences has been equally important to him. This is just one of the aspects of Blugold faculty like Lewis that makes UW-Eau Claire so special. Our faculty see their relationships with students as more than simply passing on information — it’s about making connections.  

“For the students, it was a remarkable cultural experience in a very intercultural community,” Lewis says. “We spent time touring and taking in the culture, and the students got to see that I’m not just this aging croc of a chemistry prof — they saw a different side of me.”