The Impact of a Chair: Peter de Lijser’s Legacy

Known for his dedication to his students, Peter de Lijser left a notable mark on the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. From assistant professor in 1999 to department chair in 2015, learn more about his journey and his plans for retirement.

Every organization needs a great leader to see it through the hard times and make the good ones better. For the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, that was Peter de Lijser, department chair and professor of chemistry, who retired this year (2022).

An Intentional Education

De Lijser’s fascination with chemistry began in high school when he watched his brother experiment with a chemistry set, and his passion for the subject was cemented when he later began taking chemistry courses. “When I had to choose my career path, it was a fairly easy decision to go with chemistry,” de Lijser says.

After graduating high school, de Lijser earned a bachelor’s degree in science from the Van Leeuwenhoek Institute in Delft, Netherlands. He then earned his master’s degree from Leiden University, where he met his future mentor, Donald Arnold – the Alexander McLeod professor of chemistry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia – during a research conference. Arnold encouraged him to apply to Dalhousie University’s Ph.D. program.

“I was accepted into the program,” de Lijser says, “and because we had such a great connection from the start, I decided to attend. I worked in Arnold’s research group for four years, earning my Ph.D. in chemistry in 1997, then completed my postdoctoral work at the University of Rochester in the United States.”

De Lijser’s first introduction to teaching was during his Ph.D. work, and it continued into his postdoctoral work. “Over those six years, I developed a passion for teaching and for research, so when I was ready to start my independent career, I knew it needed to offer a combination of both of those things. This is ultimately what led me to CSUF.”

Growing as a Researcher, Instructor, and Leader

Finding the opportunity to combine his two passions in NSM, de Lijser became an assistant professor of chemistry in 1999.

“When I started, I came in with strong training in research but only basic ideas for my own research program. I had limited teaching experience and very little – if any – administrative experience,” de Lijser says. “With support from the department, college, and University, I was able to grow into an experienced and independent researcher, lab manager, instructor, and administrator.”

That support included strong mentoring from more experienced faculty, which de Lijser says is essential for new faculty members and is still a department practice. The department also provided start-up funds, release time to focus on research, and a strong grant submission support system, among other resources.

“Thinking back to other institutions that offered me positions, I don’t think any of them would have been as good for my professional development. CSUF offered me what I was looking for: an institution that highly valued – and expected – excellence in teaching and research. By believing in that philosophy, I was able to become successful in my career.”

Peter de Lijser, retired chair and professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

“Because all of that was so beneficial for me as a younger faculty member, I wanted to make sure I could do the same as department chair whenever possible,” de Lijser says.

When the previous chair resigned in 2015, de Lijser was appointed as the interim chair, then elected as chair for three-year terms in 2016 and 2019.

“I was aware of the possibility of becoming department chair once I was involved in more service activities and became vice chair,” de Lijser says, “but everything happened a lot more quickly than I’d anticipated. The department trusting me to do the job meant a lot to me. The experience was very different from being faculty, and hardly a day went by that something unusual or interesting didn’t happen.”

During his time at CSUF, de Lijser was an innovator. Among other accomplishments, he co-developed and taught the Chemistry for Nursing and Allied Health course. “I was also one of the first to embrace modern technology in the chemistry classroom, using a tablet PC to write notes and display them on a screen,” de Lijser says. “That may not seem like a big deal now, but back then, no wireless options were available. I was always walking around with my tablet PC and a very long cord.”

“He also led the department as it rewrote department personnel standards,” notes Marie Johnson, NSM dean. “It can be a very contentious and emotional process, and he got everyone to come to a consensus and write the document together.”

An Innovative, Collaborative, and Kind Leader

Throughout his career, de Lijser’s commitment to and care for his students never wavered, even as he took on more responsibilities as chair. Former student Stacy Guzman (BS ’18) remembers that he took an active role in overseeing his lab students’ research projects, showing up for each weekly meeting. Johnson remembers it, too.

“He continued his research lab the whole time he served as chair, which is next to impossible,” Johnson says. “It’s a full-time job on top of another full-time job. You don’t do that if you don’t deeply care for your department, students, and colleagues.”

His care is also evident in the way he talks about some of his favorite moments at CSUF.

“I was very proud when we – my research group and I, because it is the students who do most of the work and get the preliminary data that we base proposals on – were finally successful in getting a large grant from the National Science Foundation,” de Lijser says. “I also remember a time when a manuscript we submitted was peer-reviewed and accepted without having to make any changes. As an instructor, teaching a class where students are engaged is also rewarding, and seeing students be successful in achieving their goals is always fantastic.”

Johnson adds, “I know how proud he is of his students. He had a holiday party in his own house each year and would invite all the faculty, staff, and lecturers to attend.” De Lijser and his wife, Colleen, would also host a BBQ party for his research group each summer, allowing current and past students to connect.

As an administrator, de Lijser notes that the best parts were supporting faculty, creating a collegial atmosphere, getting through COVID-19, and hiring great faculty and staff. He adds, “I want to make it clear that I cannot take credit for any of that. It’s a group and departmental effort.”

“He led through the pandemic, which was completely unprecedented and especially difficult to navigate in a lab-oriented department,” Johnson says. “I want to thank him for being a tremendous leader through a really hard time.”

The Legacy of a Lifetime

As he enters retirement, de Lijser plans to stay in touch with former colleagues and students, noting that he’s working on several collaborations with CSUF faculty. Given that he values learning from and working with others so highly, these ongoing collaborations are fitting.

“Most achievements are a group effort,” de Lijser notes. “You can’t do much without support from others. Many faculty members and administrators were very helpful over the years, and I learned a great deal about running a department – and maybe life in general – from other department chairs. I was also lucky to receive very strong mentorship from deans and associate deans.”

De Lijser hopes he was able to help students see the value in organic chemistry and appreciate the research process. He also hopes that, as department chair, he was able to create a collegial, financially responsible department that treated faculty fairly and encouraged, supported, and advocated for their success.

“It’s hard to say how things would have developed if I had gone somewhere else,” de Lijser muses. “Thinking back to other institutions that offered me positions, I don’t think any of them would have been as good for my professional development. CSUF offered me what I was looking for: an institution that highly valued – and expected – excellence in teaching and research. By believing in that philosophy, I was able to become successful in my career.”

“My experience with Peter was excellent,” Johnson says. “He has always shown tremendous care for his department – the staff, students, and faculty. Being a department chair is a really difficult job, and he did it exceptionally well for seven years. It is a heavy burden, and he carried it with grace.”

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