News & Features

Alter Ego: Chris Smart '83

Sure, you may know Vassar’s faculty members, administrators, and your fellow alumnae/i by their professional roles and accomplishments. But many have equally interesting personal passions and “secret” talents. In this series, we take a look at their alter egos.

Chemistry professor Chris Smart '83
Chemistry professor Chris Smart '83

“I’m a terribly distracted person,” says chemistry professor Chris Smart ’83. Indeed, on any given day you’ll find him working with his students on carbon nanotube research, but also working with glass, keeping bees, or brewing beer. 

“Glass blowing is sort of a necessity in chemistry,” he explains. Much of the glass in his labs is custom-made, repaired as it breaks, one piece at a time. “It’s a useful skill for someone involved in that kind of lab work to be able to do scientific glass blowing,” Smart says.

He first learned the skill while a student at Vassar, where Harry Becker—a retiree from Texaco Research Center in Beacon, New York—taught a glass blowing course in the chemistry department. Smart later honed his craft at Yale (where he earned his Ph.D.) and IBM (where he helped develop a technique known as chemical vapor deposition) before joining Vassar’s faculty in 1993.

“Then along came art glass,” Smart says. His mother-in-law bought him a glass bead-making kit, consisting of a torch head, colored glass, and other materials. “It was fun. I taught some mini-courses; students were keen on it,” he says. “But I don’t like beads. For one thing, they have a hole in them. It’s like painting a beautiful picture and then punching a hole in the middle of it. So I started making marbles.” Many examples of his work sit in a wooden bowl on the desk in his office.

Chris Smart '83 working with glass in his lab in the basement of Mudd. Working with molten glass. The bright orange flame is caused by a reaction between the blue torch flame and the glass. Preparing to round the glass marble. Removing excess glass from one end. Taking shape. Almost there. Smart with a bowl displaying many examples of his work.

From time to time Smart has also lectured on the college’s stained glass. “The library window is more famous, though I think the fantastic stained glass in the Chapel is really the best,” he says. Smart, who got married in the Chapel, points to the Tiffany Rose window as an example. “The Chapel glass was the product of the American stained glass movement of the late 1800s,” he says. “The innovations that people like Tiffany and LaFarge, the principal artists of the time, brought to the craft were chemical innovations.”

Such knowledge of glass is all well and good, Smart says, but “I would sacrifice my reputation as the campus glass blower to keep my reputation as the campus beekeeper.” He’s been keeping bees for some 30 years. Smart got into beekeeping by accident, but found that he loved it. “I’m just a backyard beekeeper,” he says modestly. “I’ve never had more than 12 hives.”

Over the years, Smart has learned some of the “less popular aspects of beekeeping,” such as catching swarms and removing bees from people’s houses. “It’s kind of like the dirty jobs of beekeeping,” he jokes.

The college has called upon Smart’s beekeeping acumen on occasion. Consider the renovation of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, which today houses the education department. When construction crews were replacing the windows, they discovered a four-foot-wide hive of honeybees living in the six-inch gap between the building’s inner and outer brick walls. “We took a sledgehammer to a National Historic Landmark and opened up the wall,” Smart says. He removed the bees—and their honeycomb—and took them home, where they now live in his backyard.

More recently, Smart’s been keeping his eye on a hive of bees living in the attic of president Cappy Hill’s home. The bees are relatively new residents, having “swarmed” from another hive on the south side of Main Building. During late spring/early summer, Smart notes, bees in New York State swarm, a way of propagating the species. A colony of bees produces a second queen, who leaves—taking ten or twenty thousand bees with her—in search of a new home.

While Smart loves working with bees, it isn’t for everyone. He estimates he’s received upwards of 2,000 stings in his time as a beekeeper. “I average 20 to 50 stings per season,” he says. “But I sometimes get 50 stings in one day.” Ouch.

What better way to wash away the pain than with a nice, cold homebrew? Smart has been brewing his own beer for nearly 15 years, five to six batches per year, five gallons per batch. “It seems like a good hobby for a chemist to be involved in,” he says. “There’s a lot of biochemistry, of course. Yeast is involved. It’s experimental. Those aspects are interesting to me as an empirical scientist. And being at a college that was founded by a brewer, it’s kind of a cute idea.”

Though Smart consistently returns to his favorite style of beer—pale ale—his homebrewing has ventured far and wide. He brewed a red ale he named Westward Ho in partnership with an of-age senior thesis student who was headed to California for graduate school. Most recently, he bottled a porter—Matthew Vassar’s specialty, notes Smart—that he named Ramaporter, which he brought with him to a beer brewing lecture he gave at Ramapo College in late February 2012.

He’s gotten some of his colleagues in on the act, too, brewing beer in the faculty lounge on the third floor of Mudd Chemistry Building. For one batch, “we put temperature sensors and probes all over the fermenter, inside and out,” explains Smart. “We hooked it up to a computer and ran data harvesting software. It’s the typical overkill approach of the scientist trying to brew beer, but why not?”

–Peter Bronski

Posted Wednesday, May 9, 2012