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Remembering Chemistry Professor Jeffery A. Byers

Chemistry professor Jeffery A. Byers, who taught at Boston College for 13 years before he died in August, was a world-class scientist, according to Dunwei Wang.

“First and foremost, he was a great scientist,” Wang, chair of BC’s chemistry department, said. “In his area of inorganic chemistry, polymer chemistry, he was world-class. And this was reflected by the research achievement, research papers, and research grants for our work he has received.”

Byers began teaching at BC in 2011 after receiving his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the California Institute of Technology. According to assistant chemistry professor Jia Niu, Byers primarily focused his research on the chemical recycling of plastics. 

“Jeff had a very strong interest in developing new chemistry that allows a new generation of plastic that can be reused and recycled,” Niu said. “And he developed a new chemical method, where you can depolymerize this type of plastic.”

Niu said the method Byers developed will allow scientists to break down acrylic plastic and turn it into recyclable plastic.

“This actually creates a circular economy, meaning that you are changing the lifecycle of the plasma from linear into a circular, such that you can very efficiently recycle and reuse those plastics,” Niu said.

According to Niu, Byers also established a program for high school students called “Paper to Plastics,” where students visited BC’s campus to learn about polymers and plastics.

“He designed this new program to inspire students to just take the common waste papers and then, through a chemical and biochemical approach, convert them into recyclable plastics,” Niu said.

Kyle Lee, a student of Byers and MCAS ’24, said Byers’ active work toward environmental sustainability through recyclable plastic made him stand out as a professor.

“I think his impact really stretches in the fact that he is one of the only few professors in the department working on this kind of broader environmental impact in a way, specifically, in the focus of chemical recycling,” Lee said.

Outside of his research, Byers also loved to teach, said Bill Thompson, a member of Byers’ research team. 

“Most research faculty here only have to teach one class a semester,” said Thompson, who is a 3rd-year Ph.D. candidate in GMCAS. “He would teach his class, and then once or twice a week he would teach us a different class on top of that because he really valued learning, and not just learning what you were working on, but learning a variety of related chemistries.”

Byers’ passion for teaching and learning helped his students greatly, Wang said.

“[His students] benefited tremendously from his deep and broad knowledge,” Wang said. “Whatever you talk about, he just [had] so much to say, because he was so insightful. He was just very, very helpful. Outside the classroom, he really had the students’ well-being and futures and career development in mind.”

Thompson also noted Byers’ dedication to his students, not only as a teacher, but also as a mentor. 

“Jeff was really a great mentor,” Thompson said. “He really could get into the weeds about things and he really did care about … each of his students progressing and learning and becoming a better chemist. Regardless of how that was, he just wanted to see that you were growing.”

Lee said the trust that Byers’ placed in him to assist with his research inspired him to apply to graduate school.

“His trust in me to do research for him and to work on these important projects kind of really solidified my goals and my desires to pursue graduate school and to also pursue maybe becoming a professor like him in the future,” Lee said.

The chemistry department will continue doing the work that Byers loved in his memory, according to Wang.

“We can’t change what has happened,” Wang said. “We couldn’t revive him, but we’ll cherish the memories left behind and then we just need to continue doing what he loves the most, which is science—chemistry.”

September 11, 2023