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James P. Riehl
James P. Riehl in the 110,000 square-foot James I. Swenson Science Building, which was built in 2005.

James P. Riehl: Providing Direction for the UMD Science Scene

Riehl with Brian Kobilka and Chancellor Black
Nobel Prize recipient Brian Kobilka with Dean Riehl and UMD Chancellor Lendley C. Black.

Over his 14 years at the University of Minnesota Duluth, James P. Riehl has facilitated the growth and enhanced the strength of the Swenson College of Science and Engineering (SCSE). Now, he has announced that he will retire as dean on June 30, 2014.

During his tenure, Riehl set high standards for faculty and student success and worked hard to promote innovative and effective teaching and world-class research and scholarship. As a result, UMD’s science and engineering programs have grown both in numbers and quality; and the future is bright, especially with plans for a new Chemical Sciences and Advanced Materials (CSAM) building on the horizon.

Under Riehl’s leadership, SCSE research funding has consistently come in at over $6 million per year, topping $9 million in 2012. The funds have come from sources such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.

Riehl’s career has been filled with accomplishments. From fall 2000 when he arrived at UMD, to this year, undergraduate enrollment grew 49 percent from 2,051 to 3,047 students and graduate enrollment grew 110 percent from 142 to 301 students. The number of degrees awarded grew 85 percent from 298 to 552; ACT scores climbed; and 18 additional tenure-track faculty were hired. Also, 12 new programs were added: seven new undergraduate degrees, four masters degrees, and a Ph.D degree.  In addition, the number of chemistry majors has doubled, due in a large part to the presence of the pharmacy program on campus.

“We have amazing and talented faculty,” said Riehl. “We’ve hired people with national reputations in research, and they are making significant contributions to the state and the region.”

Faculty members have praise for Riehl in return. "Jim supported, encouraged, and helped us establish the Integrated Bioscience master's degree and doctoral program," said John Pastor, biology professor. "This is UMD's first Ph.D. offering and if it wasn't for Jim, it would not exist." Riehl's collegial spirit and his varied interests are also appreciated. "Jim has a strong interest in science writing for the public and in art, especially the paintings of Vermeer," said Pastor. "He will be missed as a dean and colleague."

While this is already a lengthy list of Riehl’s impact and accomplishments, it doesn’t end there. The massive growth couldn’t have taken place without new facilities, and Riehl’s hand guided UMD’s construction of two new buildings, the 110,000 square-foot, $33 million, Swenson Science Building in 2005 and the 34,000 square-foot, $15 million, Swenson Civil Engineering Building in 2010.

Riehl acknowledges the assistance of many of UMD’s alumni and friends, especially James I. and Susan Swenson. “Jim and Sue are inspiring,” Riehl said.  “They have a tremendous commitment to students. They made things happen. In addition to helping build two buildings, they provide full tuition to 32 chemistry majors every year.” The scholarships are a game changer for UMD. “When you give a scholarship to a top student, it raises the bar for every class,” said Riehl. “That top student teaches study habits and excitement about learning, and that’s just as valuable as a great professor.”

Jim Swenson had a strong influence on Riehl. “Each year, Jim speaks to the freshman class in the Romano Gym during orientation,” Riehl said. “He congratulates them on their choice to attend UMD.  He lets students know UMD’s faculty members care and will help them succeed.”  

Less than two years ago the SCSE External Advisory Board met, and one of the topics brought up was the need for educational and research programs on polymers and composites. Around this same time Riehl was also presented with an external review of the Chemistry building indicating that it was in dire need of an upgrade.  That’s where the concept came for the Chemical Sciences and Advanced Materials (CSAM) building. In addition to the need of newer safer labs for students and faculty, alumni and industry experts urged UMD to consider adding educational and research programs in material science and engineering. “The next decade will be the decade of materials,” Riehl said. “It also makes great sense that we develop expertise and programs in materials, since many local companies are working in this area.” Professionals from companies including Cirrus, BendTec, and Enbridge have indicated a materials engineering building and program would be a big step in providing the region with talented people and equipment. “The Cirrus aircraft firm just flew a new personal jet,” said Riehl. “We need to support this industry and other local companies with faculty expertise and modern instrumentation for fabrication and testing.”
This new building will also allow the Swenson College of Science and Engineering to recruit additional faculty and admit more students.  “We are completely full,” Riehl says.  In both the science and engineering departments there is no space to accommodate research labs for new faculty.  With the addition of the CSAM building, Riehl estimates that there would be room for an additional 250 STEM students.  “Our country and our state need to respond to the increasing need for talented engineers and scientists,” Riehl says.  “This is critical for the continued economic growth of Northeast Minnesota.”

“I’m leaving the Dean's office on a high note,” said Riehl. “It’s been an incredible journey.” Riehl only sees good things ahead for the SCSE and UMD. “UMD has the drive and the momentum. It has talented dedicated faculty members and supportive administration. It’s poised for growth in numbers and stature.”  Riehl looks forward to returning to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry faculty on a half-time basis, finishing two books that he has been working on, and getting back to teaching. 


Riehl hails from Philadelphia. He received his B.S. in Chemistry from Villanova University in 1970 and his Ph.D. degree from Purdue University in 1975. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia with Professor F.S. Richardson, he joined the faculty at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He joined the faculty at Michigan Tech University in 1993 as professor and chemistry chair. He has held visiting appointments at Kings College, London and the University of Leiden, The Netherlands. In 1992, he received the St. Louis Award from the American Chemical Society. In 2004, he received the Gold Medal from the University of Wroclaw Poland to honor 15 years of collaborative research and education programs. In 2004, he received the title of 3M McKnight Presidential Leadership Chair at the University of Minnesota.

Riehl is the author or coauthor of more than 100 research publications. His work has been published in more than 25 articles and one book since he came to UMD, all while Riehl led SCSE. Riehl has been invited to lecture through the U.S. and has given more than 30 lectures in 15 foreign countries. He is recognized by the international scientific community as an expert in the use of optical spectroscopy to probe the structure of  "chiral" molecules. These are molecules, which may occur in non-superimposable mirror-image forms. Almost all biological molecules and pharmaceuticals are chiral, and an understanding of the relationship between chiral molecular structure and biological function is of fundamental interest to chemists and biologists.

By Cheryl Reitan, April 2014.

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