College of Science; Graduate School; Research

Meet a Tiger: Ken Marcus


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“A Ph.D. is a degree that says you’re a problem-solver, and my job is to create Ph.D.s,” says Ken Marcus, professor of analytical chemistry in the College of Science. Having guided close to 40 Clemson graduate students through the rigorous process of obtaining their doctorate degrees, and obtaining 15 patents, one could say he has done his fair share helping the world solve big problems.

“I do exactly what I want to do,” he says with a smile. “To do that, I have to get grant money, I have to pay my grad students, and I have to keep them equipped. Then I look around and I hear about problems, and we look in our tool chest to see if there’s things we can do to solve them to bring in more funding.”

The process seems so simple when he describes it, and maybe it is from his point of view—a point of view that was forged by a childhood of hard work and pragmatism.

Marcus grew up on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay in Tidewater, Virginia. His father, Richard Marcus, was an officer in the Navy and his mom, Sandy, drove a school bus and worked in the Navy housing office. It was the 1960s during the peak of the counterculture wave, but as a military family hard work and discipline were ingrained in his brother, sister and him from an early age. He delivered newspapers starting from the age of 12 and graduated to washing dishes in restaurants during high school.

His first car was a 1966 Chevy Impala station wagon, paid for from the fruits of his labor.

“That thing was probably 20 feet long,” he says. “It was great. I put crushed velvet seats in it and painted it myself.”

When he wrecked the car while out driving with some friends, he had to rebuild it himself. In the Marcus family, you owned up to your mistakes and solved your own problems—a trait he would carry into his life’s work, and that he strives to instill in his graduate students.

“You are presented a problem, you assess what exists today to help you solve this problem, formulate your own approach, and apply that approach. In many respects whether it works or not is not the end game. It’s that you know how to do the process.”

Marcus put himself through undergraduate school at Longwood College in Farmville, Va., earning bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and physics in 1982. He earned his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Virginia in 1986 and came to Clemson two weeks later.

He met his wife, Lisa, an accountant at the University, while attending the First Baptist church.

“It’s the second marriage for each of us, and we each had three kids—so when we take the whole family to Hilton Head every year, our reservations are always made as the Brady Bunch,” he laughs.

In his lab in Clemson’s Biosystems Research Complex, Marcus and his students have designed chemical instrumentation that can do everything from sensing the makeup and origin of nuclear explosions to identifying the layers and thicknesses of coatings, paints, primers and other materials in the hood of a NASCAR race car.

Pic of patent plaque.
A patent hangs in Clemson University professor of chemistry Ken Marcus’ office in Clemson’s Biosystems Research Complex.

“We’re up to 15 patents now,” says Marcus. “I used to call my group of students ‘The Tinkerers’ because we’d tinker until we could prove a concept, then we’d publish a couple of papers, and eventually get the interest of instrument manufacturers.”

Plaques recognizing Marcus’s patents for using polymer fibers to separate and detect proteins, to a system for chemical analysis that can determine “who the bad guy was” after a nuclear event, and many others fill a good part of the wall over his office desk.

“You see we do more than chemistry —it’s technology development. We build things that tell people what’s in stuff.”

Marcus’s students get their names on the patents and, if a company uses them, residual payments forever after, but the most valuable thing they get, says Marcus, is that Ph.D.

“My students have all done very well,” he says. “No one’s ever left here without a job.”

Most of Marcus’s doctoral students are employed by the federal government in national laboratories like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, he says, because those laboratories know his track record of making people who can work in their environments.

“There’s a yin and a yang between technology and science,” he explains. “Which is the chicken and which is the egg? If you don’t have a tool that allows somebody to measure something to know that it’s important, how do you know that it’s important at all? Or vice versa. They have to coexist.”

At home, he and his wife enjoy food, wine and sports. The two share a passion for live music and recently traveled to Las Vegas to see Aerosmith. They are college football junkies and root for The Tigers, of course, but they also adopt west coast teams like the Oregon Ducks and Stanford so they can have something to watch late at night. Marcus loves to cook, especially for family and friends, but “I’m not a detailed recipe follower,” he chuckles. “I call it ‘seat-of-the-pants cooking’.”

They’re also passionate NASCAR aficionados, to the point that he signed himself up for the Richard Petty driving school as a present to himself so that on his 50th birthday he could hit 150 miles-an-hour on the track.

“Life gets better after 50!” he insists. “You quit worrying about stuff.”

To young people considering a career, he gives this tongue-in-cheek advice:

“Do what you think is fun. Personally, I think doing chemistry is fun. Studying it may not be fun, but doing it is!”

The incredible success of his graduate program has led to high demands for a spot on his team. Marcus is very selective when hiring, and is as pragmatic as always when deciding which candidates to take under his wing.

“Hard working is better than smart. I can take somebody average, teach them some skills, and let them use their own guts to work through things. It’s hard to get past not wanting to put out an effort,” he states. “Smart and lazy doesn’t do a thing for me.”

Meet more Tigers here, and check out #FacesOfClemson on Instagram.

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