November 29, 2023

You Can Do It, You Can Do It…

You Can Do It, You Can Do It…

You Can Do It, You Can Do It...

By Tucker Mitchell  |  November 2023  |  FMU Focus Magazine Fall 2023

Dr. Leroy Peterson

Trustees’ Research Scholar 2011-12 to Present

When the grinding, often-tedious life of a research chemist takes its inevitable toll, Dr. Leroy “Pete” Peterson inevitably turns to a plaque on the wall of his lab for a little pick me up.

It is the trophy honoring Peterson as a Trustees’ Research Scholar at Francis Marion University.

“You’d be surprised, but I look at that quite frequently,” says Peterson. “You know, I’ll be having a day where things just aren’t going that well and I’m getting a little down on myself, and I’ll get that out and read it. It’s just so inspiring to me. I almost feel an energy coming from that. It lets me know that somebody thinks I can do it. I can do it. I can do it!”

Peterson is an old hand at FMU. A native of nearby Mars Bluff, S.C., just minutes from the campus, he’s an FMU grad (’85) who came back to teach at his alma mater at the behest of his former professors.

“William Brezeale, Skip Hendricks, Dr. (William) Moran, they all saw something they liked, I guess, and told me I really needed to apply after I finished my doctorate (at the University of South Carolina),” says Peterson. “That’s worked out pretty well.”

Peterson says he enjoys teaching, but his first love is almost certainly the lab. He likes to be there, working with students, and working on the various projects that occupy his attention at any given time.

The interest goes back to his childhood, to comic books, he admits somewhat sheepishly.

“You know, Spiderman, radioactive spider, in a lab, and so on,” says Peterson. “At the time, I think the motivation was to get me some super powers and maybe that would be attractive to girls. … It’s progressed somewhat since then.”

Peterson joined the Army after graduating from high school so he could earn some money for college. He landed a post in the “NBC” — Nuclear, Biological, Chemical warfare — which further whetted his appetite. Every now and then he’d save up some cash and buy a chemistry textbook. “You know,” says Peterson, “just to read. … for fun.”

Peterson has delved into many areas as a researcher. Before receiving the TRS honor, he says he was motivated, or at least interested, in work done by Irix Pharmaceuticals, a Florence, S.C.-based startup that began its existence in rented lab space in FMU’s Leatherman Science Facility in the mid-1990s. The company, now part of Thermo Fisher, was a start up that succeeded on the basis of its chemical research. And it all happened right before Peterson’s eyes.

“I saw that, right on our doorstep, and it was almost unbelievable,” says Peterson. “It certainly got me thinking.”

Peterson says he remains inspired and engaged, even as his career approaches what he calls “a transition.”

That’s a euphemism for his looming retirement next year.

He is looking forward to maintaining some presence at FMU — hopefully in his lab — and pursuing work on projects set aside years ago. One particular promising project is finding a more efficient (read cheaper) way to synthesize the active ingredients in the market-leading mosquito repellent known as “Deet.” Peterson and some of his students worked on that several years ago and made significant progress.

“I think there are some possibilities there,” he says. “I think I can do it.”

If he ever needs any confirmation of that, he can just pick up his plaque and take a look.

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