Alumni Spotlight- Dr. Kit Bowen
By Jamie Kornegay
When Kit Hansell Bowen, Jr., graduated from Grenada High School in 1966, he had already refined uranium and built a nuclear accelerator. His experiments twice earned him first place at the Mississippi State Science Fair, as well as placement in an international science fair.
But it took him a while to solve the formula for personal success.
Bowen — now Dr. Bowen — admits, "I was a terrible student until high school."
After falling in love with chemistry and physics in fifth and sixth grades respectively, it wasn't until later that Bowen made the connection between good grades and his dream of becoming a scientist. After that, he became a straight-A student "essentially overnight."
He gives credit to his "dear friend, chemistry teacher, and mentor" — O.E. Boyd — for driving him and validating his ambitious ideas for science research and experiments. "Mr. Boyd gave me free- rein of the John Rundle High School lab, and I will always be grateful to him for trusting and believing in me."
Today Bowen is a chemistry professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He leads an award-winning research lab, the Bowen Group, and has given lectures at university chemistry departments all over the world. He credits his success with the freedom and motivation that came from his early experiments in Grenada.
With the blessings of his teacher, Bowen produced three substantial science fair projects in high school that would lead to his research today, dealing mostly in atom clusters and nanoparticles.
As a high-school sophomore, he refined uranium and turned rock into metal. "I had no prescriptions for how to do this, no internet, and only a modest library," Bowen recalls. What he had was a knack for forging long-distance relationships with pen pals all over the world.
Bowen wrote Kerr-McGee, an energy corporation that produced crude oil and natural gas, as well as mined uranium. They donated a sample of carnotite, a mineral which appears as green or yellow flakes on sandstone found primarily in the western U.S.
Starting with the yellow flakes, Bowen designed a chemical pathway that refined the ore to a solid, which he further processed using simple household materials such as a casserole dish and a fish aquarium. Finally, he turned the solid to metal through a high-temperature reaction with magnesium powder. A fair-winning project was born.
For his junior year experiment, Bowen opted to build a small nuclear accelerator called a cyclotron. A Grenada shop owner agreed to wind the magnets, and the local Carrier air-conditioning company offered to buy the copper wire. But political instability in Chile, which sent the price of copper through the roof, thwarted his plans.
Undaunted, Bowen searched for an alternative and found, in the high-school physics lab storeroom, a van de Graaff generator, which could produce two to three hundred thousand volts of electric energy. "With it, I knew enough nuclear physics to realize that I could reach the nuclear world."
Bowen adapted the machine to suit his purposes, producing helium ions and accelerating them through beryllium. The released neutrons made adjacent materials mildly radioactive, as confirmed by a civil defense Geiger counter. "Once optimized, I ran my uranium for many, many hours after school and into the night, in hopes of of making an ultra-tiny amount of plutonium."
The inspiration for his nuclear experiments was the world in which he grew up. "The early 1960s sat in the middle of the nuclear age and the Cold War as well as intense social upheaval."
And while today, it seems improbable that a high school student would dabble in radioactivity, Bowen insists, "It was, in many ways, a more innocent time. I was always very careful. I knew I was out on a limb, but that was okay."
For his senior project, Bowen wanted to experiment with the chemical effects of light. Without a useful light source, he convinced several doctors in town to let him use their x-ray machines as a source. Through Bowen's network of pen pals, scientists at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago steered him toward an unsolved problem involving radiation and the oxidization of the rare-earth element samarium.
But the experiment failed. Bowen set it aside and completed his senior year. He went on to earn his bachelor of science at the University of Mississippi and masters and doctorate degrees from Harvard. He started at Johns Hopkins as an assistant professor in 1980 and became a full professor in 1990.
But early failure, as Bowen experienced, can come back to help you down the road. He recalls an incident that occurred about ten years ago.
A group of his students were preparing experiments that required rare-earth metals, but they didn't have the proper materials. He suggested they use the samarium sample from his failed senior science experiment, which he kept among his lab's chemical inventory. The students ran the element through their mass spectrometer and discovered it wasn't samarium at all but holmium, another rare-earth metal.
"Suddenly it all became clear," Bowen recalls. "My senior-year high school project had failed because the samarium I purchased, in fact, had been mislabeled!"
Bowen, who lives in Maryland with his wife Annette Garofalo and their daughter, Margaret, says his formula for success still applies to Grenada students today, no matter their area of study.
"It's all about motivation and believing in one's self. With it, the sky's the limit."