July 26, 2010 | Amy Surbatovich

Calvin inorganic chemistry professor Douglas Vander Griend makes shapes with molecules.

Calvin inorganic chemistry professor Douglas Vander Griend makes shapes with molecules. “I often refer to my work as ‘molecular Tinkertoys,’” he said. Vander Griend works with elements from all across the periodic table, studying how molecules interact to form small structures. “The pieces are so small you can’t actually put them together,” he said. “You just have to allow them to assemble together.”

Vander Griend researches thermochromic systems: systems that change color according to temperature. His research in that area is helping Pleotint LLC, a company based in South Olive, Mich., to develop windows that tint in response to direct sunlight.

Vander Griend also studies nanomachines, or molecular muscles that contract, and supramolecular assembly, or how molecules come together. “Making really small devices or really small anything is a very inviting technological movement,” Vander Griend said. “Basically, it’s the culmination of people realizing that if you want to make something really, really small, you have to start with molecules and build up, rather than trying to carve detail into something little.”

Chemistry empowers

A Grand Rapids native, Vander Griend describes himself as “straight down the channel in terms of Calvin College.” His father was a CRC minister, and he attended Seymour and Millbrook Christian Schools before going on to study math and chemistry at Calvin. “I think what I’ve always liked about chemistry is that it opens the world in terms of what you see and what you can do with everything around you,” Vander Griend said. “It’s a very empowering and enlightening thing to study, and there’s so much that we haven’t figured out yet.”

But Vander Griend says it wasn’t until he started graduate studies at Northwestern University in Illinois that his appreciation for his subject deepened: “I studied inorganic chemistry, and I went into an area that I didn’t have much exposure to before … so that was really different, and I really fell in love with chemistry in general and all the different types of research you could do and knowledge you could go after.”

An energetic teacher

After graduating from Northwestern, Vander Griend went on to complete a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at Furman University in South Carolina. A year into his studies there, he was invited to apply for a job at Calvin College; the inorganic chemistry professor had retired.

Vander Griend was offered the job, but he still had another year of his fellowship to complete. “They actually held the job for me for a year,” he said. “So I really was given a gift there.”

Vander Griend likes being a professor: “I enjoy almost everything about my job, which is a pretty rare privilege. Not many people can say that.”

Larry Louters, the chemistry department’s chair, praised Vander Griend’s interaction with students. “He’s developed these programs that really integrate students in with the faculty,” he said. One such program is the department’s annual Chili Cook-off; the faculty member who wins the cook-off is awarded a bowl that she or he must keep filled with candy for a year.

“He’s got a lot of energy,” Louters said, “and he’s a very good teacher. He’s got great rapport with young people—and a little bit of craziness, which always helps.”

Family life

Vander Griend enjoys spending time outdoors bicycling with his wife Susie and his sons Lucas and Asher, who are five and three years old, respectively.

Even at home, however, Vander Griend can’t escape his love of building with small items—he collects Star Wars Lego sets.

Recent stories