Tar Heel of the Week

Name honors a lifetime of building

Staff WriterNovember 7, 2010 

— Two of the new buildings within the new physical sciences complex at UNC-Chapel Hill are named for loyal alums who donated millions to the project.

And then there's Murray Hall, named for a man who has given far more.

Royce Murray has been called the "heart and soul" of the chemistry department at UNC-CH, an assessment that seems fair, given that he is now in his 50th year as a faculty member there. Now, a new chemistry building he helped design bears his name, an unusual honor, though not unique. Universities generally name new buildings for big donors or historic campus figures.

"I thought it was unreal. Surreal, I think, is the word," Murray said of his new honor. "This doesn't happen if you're still alive."

Murray is actually one of two current faculty members for whom a building in the new science complex is named. The nearby Brooks building is named for Fred Brooks, the longtime computer science professor.

At first, Murray's name was to adorn a quadrangle within the new science complex, which is still under construction off South Road.

But the recession slowed the project. There's no quadrangle yet, so the university put Murray's name on the new chemistry building instead.

"We wanted something significant named for Royce," said Chancellor Holden Thorp, a chemistry professor himself who has published several joint journal articles with Murray. "He's a humble guy, but he has unbelievably high standards for science and for how you treat your students and colleagues."

Murray won't be working in Murray Hall. There's something strange and vaguely egotistical about doing so, he says. Plus, he has decades of research, journals, texts and photographs dotting the walls and jamming the bookcases of his not-for-the-claustrophobic office in the Kenan Labs building adjacent to the new science complex.

"I'd probably never get them put back together the way I want," he said. "Too much of a headache and not necessary."

And he's not about to complain about his current building. After all, he helped design it.

His building legacy

In fact, you might say Murray has minored in building design over the course of his half century on the UNC-CH campus. In the late 1960s, he was the one-man building committee designing the Kenan Labs building. Years later, he had an indirect hand in the planning of the Morehead labs building by virtue of his role as chemistry department chairman at the time. Earlier this decade, he was enlisted yet again, this time to head a committee of faculty members designing the new science complex.

"That's a big deal," said Thomas Meyer, a longtime Murray colleague in UNC-CH's chemistry department. "The design guys don't always get it right. You need a scientist in the middle of it."

The new science complex is slated to cost more than $250 million, making it the largest project in campus history. Five buildings have been built thus far, with two more in the works. It sits tucked into the elbow of campus formed by the intersection of South Road and Columbia Street, in part on the site of the former Venable Hall, the dank, quirky, oddly-laid-out chemistry headquarters that spawned love-hate relationships with students for 83 years before being demolished in 2008.

In planning the complex, Murray and others hoped to create an interdisciplinary work environment, where faculty members and students from various sciences could work in proximity. The basic notion was to maximize brain power by getting big thinkers closer to each other. The result: chemists, physicists, astronomers, marine scientists and computer scientists all within walking distance of one another.

It's a concept with merit, Murray says now. But at 73, he's still an old-school thinker: "With the science complex, we've accomplished the mingling of disciplines in many ways," he said recently. "But the idea that it's necessary to mix the disciplines is full of corn. It's not the only way science is grown."

Shaping the future

Over the years, Murray has grown quite a lot of science. And scientists. One was Lowry Caudill, class of '79, who wound up in Murray's lab while working on his senior research project. The experience shaped and inspired him.

"I got to see what big-league academic research was all about," said Caudill, who now lives in Durham. "I got to watch a master at his craft."

Caudill, who would go on to co-found Magellan Laboratories, a drug development company, found a way to pay Murray back for the experience. It was his $5 million gift to the science complex project that funded the naming of Murray Hall. (Caudill's name is on another building in the complex.)

Murray's area of expertise is analytical chemistry, which he describes, essentially, as "the science of measuring chemical things." He teaches undergraduate and grad level courses and runs two labs totaling about a dozen researchers, an effort underwritten by grants from three federal agencies. He made his first big splash in 1974 when he introduced the world to the concept of chemically modified electrodes, which proved a valuable tool for researchers studying fuel cells, chemical sensors and solar energy conversion.

His influence reaches far from Chapel Hill. For the last 20 years, Murray has edited Analytical Chemistry, the best-read journal in the field. He's been active in professional organizations as well.

But science doesn't consume Murray entirely. He travels. He gardens.

"My wife drags me to the movies every once in a while," he says. He recommends "Secretariat," by the way - "if you like horses."

A few years back, Murray considered retiring. So he decided one fall semester not to take any new graduate students, a first step toward phasing out his career.

It didn't take.

"I realized, darn it, I like what I'm doing," he said. "So I'm going to keep doing this as long as I can."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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