The Man Behind the Microscope (Donation)

This semester, Ursinus college received a donation worth $150,000 from the pharmaceutical industry giant, Johnson & Johnson. Over the past five years, Ursinus alumnus, Rick Bruce ‘79, helped facilitate the donation, which will help provide industry-grade equipment to the chemistry and physics departments. To learn more, I spoke to “Rick the Bruce” himself.

Rick Bruce ‘79, a chemistry major in his undergraduate years, primarily involved himself in the campus bible study while at Ursinus, which later became InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Last year, he retired from Johnson & Johnson but was delighted to discover that the donation he set in motion years ago finally came to fruition.

Additionally, he gave an in-depth explanation of the capability of each of the donated pieces of equipment. Pieces he highlighted included the chemistry department’s new microbalance as well
as an oven with the capability to “bubble in” water vapor or other fluids to help control conditions. The confocal microscope donated will enable various analytic techniques.

Bruce still remembers his time at Ursinus with fondness. He began the interview discussing Dr. Schulz ran a Polymer Chemistry class “one-on-one” since he was the only student enrolled in a class rarely offered at liberal arts colleges. “Coming right out of college, [he was] highly surprised” at how Ursinus had prepared him to perform at such a high level as an undergraduate. After Ursinus, he went on to earn a master’s degree from Villanova and then spent the rest of his career at the Senior Scientist/PhD level, even saying he “taught and mentored folks coming in at the PhD level.” He said that “Chemistry is tough. I did well but I really needed [my professors’] help. They were terrific.” Being at Ursinus, he said, “was like being schooled by a family member.”

After college, Bruce became a senior scientist primarily at Johnson & Johnson in various research and development projects as well as continuing to volunteer with InterVarsity. He earned two master’s degrees, in theology and chemistry. He said that attending Ursinus helped him meld those two fields together and allowed “the integration of my science and faith to be very supported.” He referenced Johannes Kepler’s statement inscribed over the Pfahler entrance: “I think thy thoughts after thee, o God.”

Bruce highlighted the importance of a liberal arts grounding, in whatever field one enters. “If you’re going to study a watch, study the watchmaker,” he said, referencing a quote of unknown origin. “You’ve got to see the interplay of the technical and the artistic and the human and the ethical as well as the environmental [and] business.” He continued, discussing the link between academia and industry. “The catch-22 between [the two] is that industry is time and value limited and product-oriented.” Industry has more funds but has to focus more on development and “can’t ask why purely for the reason of asking why” while academia does not have anything close to the budget of industry, but “it doesn’t matter if
it doesn’t work. You can ask why not? There’s no such thing as bad data. If you throw data out, that’s a terrible thing to do. It describes whatever the heck you just did in the experiment.”

This is where donations from industry to academia are essential. “One strengthens the other,” as he says, because academia can explore and answer some of the questions; industry just “hope[s] it works” without delving too much into the why. “It’s the same way with academia and industry. One needs the other.”

Two highlights of Bruce’s career included playing a “minor” part in the Johnson & Johnson DNA-based vaccine as well as helping to develop Erleada, which was extra special to him since he is a fourth stage prostate cancer survivor and was part of the the team to “develop a drug I’m still on,” again, saying that “God takes care.”

Unrelated to his career, he had a fun fact to share about campus in the 70s. Apparently the Philadelphia 76ers used to practice in Helffrich Gym, he believed (in Ritter back before FLB existed), and you could occasionally see them on campus.

Thank you to Johnson & Johnson, Rick Bruce ‘79, and everyone involved in orchestrating the donation to Ursinus.

Marie Sykes: