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Washington State University
CAS Connect August 2013

In Motion: Don Matteson

National award for local chemist

As a youngster, Don Matteson was known among his friends as a bit of a mad scientist.  Encouraged by his high-school-biology-teaching father, Don cooked up lead alloys, brewed gooey rubber and distilled alcohol from home-canned jars of plums gone bad.

Don Matteson. (Photo by Washington State Magazine, 2011)
Don Matteson. (Photo by Washington State Magazine, 2011)

Years later, as a chemistry professor at Washington State University supervising his first graduate student, Matteson was intrigued by an unexpected boron-based product in one of their experiments. That one “mistake” would lead him on a life-long journey and ultimately to the development of an important cancer treatment that is today saving lives around the world.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) will honor Matteson and his seminal work with a 2013 Cope Scholars Award at the society’s annual fall meeting in Indianapolis in September. Matteson will also present his work at the concurrent 2013 Cope Scholars symposium.

“Don is one of the most extraordinary people I know,” wrote Phil Gardner, WSU professor of chemistry, in his nomination of Matteson for the ACS award. “His enduring love of science shines through and defines his character.”

Long-term rewards

After the initial unexpected results back in the early 1970s, Matteson began investigating a “biologically interesting” boron compound using the same chemistry as his first student. Ten years later, Matteson finally discovered how to overcome the vexing instability of an intermediate step. The published results immediately attracted attention from DuPont, said Matteson, but the collaboration never came to fruition.

Matteson at his lab bench. (Photo by Carolyn Joswig-Jones)
Matteson at his lab bench. (Photo by Carolyn Joswig-Jones)

Skip forward another 20 years and a new company, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, sees promise in the same results and uses Matteson’s chemistry to develop Velcade, an enzyme-inhibiting cancer treatment. Velcade received FDA approval in 2003 and is now being used to successfully treat certain cases of multiple myeloma, a cancer affecting plasma cells in bone marrow and, in turn, the body’s immune system.

“I am delighted my life’s work is contributing to something real,” said Matteson, now a professor emeritus at WSU.

Beyond the lab

Matteson joined the WSU faculty in the fall of 1958, after a short stint working as a research chemist at DuPont. In 1966, he was the first WSU faculty member to receive an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship. Two years later, he took a sabbatical to work in the lab of boron pioneer M. Frederick Hawthorne at the University of California, Riverside.

Matteson was honored with a Boron USA Award for Distinguished Achievement in 1992 and spent a semester at MIT in 1997 as a visiting professor, teaching with a former classmate from his undergraduate days at Berkeley. Matteson has lectured in Europe, Russia, India, and Canada, and extensively in Japan. He holds five patents, is the author of two books on organic chemistry, has authored or co-authored more than 200 technical articles, and served on the editorial advisory board of two national journals.

In the classroom, Matteson has taught hundreds, if not thousands, of WSU students over the course of his 55-year career, covering everything from basic organic chemistry to graduate-level seminars.

However, Matteson believes that many sciences are “too complex to learn just from lectures and book study. Real chemistry is learned by doing.”

To that end, he has mentored and advised 31 doctoral students, supervised six master’s students and hosted more than two dozen postdoctoral research associates.

Continuing the pursuit

Don Matteson holds a 1937 photo of himself and the girl who became his wife, Marianna, in his lab at WSU’s Fulmer Hall. (Photo by Christopher Anderson/ Spokesman Review 2008. Read the accompanying story)
Don Matteson holds a 1937 photo of himself and the girl who became his wife, Marianna, in his lab at WSU’s Fulmer Hall.
(Photo by Christopher Anderson/
Spokesman Review 2008. Read the accompanying story)

Although he officially retired last year, Matteson is still experimenting and asking questions. His current work focuses on improving the process of producing boron compounds to make them more cost effective and easier to produce in larger quantities. The Cope Scholars Award includes a $40,000 research grant, which Matteson is using to upgrade equipment in his Fulmer Hall lab. At 81, he still bikes or walks to campus most days and has no plans to stop working as long as he is physically able.

Matteson and his wife, Marianna, former chair of the WSU Department of Foreign Languages and Culture, are active in the Pullman/Moscow community and are generous donors to Washington State University. Their gifts support Northwest Public Radio and chemistry symposia as well as professorships and various departmental activities in both the arts and sciences.

Snapshot: Department of Chemistry

Ever since the Washington Agricultural College and School of Science opened its doors in 1892, chemistry has been an integral part the academic mission of our institution.

A six-story addition to Fulmer Hall, including additional teaching spaces and research laboratories, was completed in 1961.
A six-story addition to Fulmer Hall, including additional teaching spaces and research laboratories, was completed in 1961.

At the turn of the century, labs and classrooms were located in the original Sciences Hall (now known as Murrow West). In the mid-1930s, Chemistry Hall was built to accommodate the growing enterprise. The four-story building was eventually named for Elton Fulmer, a nationally known chemist who served the institution as head of the department and dean of faculty from 1893 until his death in 1916.

Today, the Department of Chemistry is a vibrant center of research and instruction with 26 faculty, 115 graduate students, and an undergraduate teaching load of more than 20,000 student credit hours.

Research within the department is focused on three interdisciplinary areas:

Chemistry of biological systems—the study of reactivity in biological systems and the application of chemical techniques to understand and manipulate molecules in living systems.

Chemistry of materials—understanding synthesis, properties, behavior of materials, and applying new knowledge to improve performance.

Chemistry of energy and the environment—sustaining and enhancing energy cycles and addressing the impact of energy production on environmental quality; includes work by the internationally renown radiochemistry group.

Undergraduate degrees offered:

  • Bachelor’s of Science in Materials Chemistry
  • Bachelor’s of Science in Professional Chemistry

In addition to its own students, the Department of Chemistry provides significant instruction for students majoring in disciplines such as crop and soil sciences, veterinary medicine, food science, viticulture and enology, biology, neuroscience, engineering, and environmental sciences.