Dr. James Davis

Posted on January 1, 2014 by Arts and Sciences
Arts and Sciences

Dr. James Davis, Professor of Chemistry, is an internationally renowned expert on ionic liquids, which are liquefied salts, which melt at low temperatures and which can function as solvents. His research record has recently earned him the prestigious title of Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Such recognition is not surprising. Indeed, since 1998 Davis and his research group have published 100 papers and abstracts. He says this published work has been “cited by others almost 10,000 times,” and his group has “nine issued patents in the field and have a couple of others pending.”

Davis came to the University of South Alabama as an Assistant Professor in August of 1995 after a previously teaching Chemistry at Brandeis University. When he started at USA, there was no established research expectation for faculty members. Davis says he was hired to “excel in teaching.” Soon, however, research requirements for faculty members were established, and Davis had to set up a viable research program to achieve tenure and promotion. According to Davis, he started research on salt compounds with “very low melting points,” which dovetailed fortuitously with emergent research on ionic liquids. His success soon followed. Indeed, Davis and his research team are leaders in this field of chemistry.

According to Davis, he is “probably the most proud of the fact that [his] research group has accomplished this high level of recognition and accomplishment despite being only undergraduate in character.  This sharply contrasts with the groups of [his] (friendly) competitors, which usually have armies of Ph.D. students and some of which have entire buildings of their own!”

Davis grew up in a small town [what is the name of the town?], where most job opportunities were in chemistry. With deep roots in the area, Davis did not plan to move away. As a result of the local jobs available, he chose chemistry as his major even though his favorite academic subjects were history and English. His high school chemistry teacher and his undergraduate Organic Chemistry professor at the University of North Alabama deserve much credit for preparing Davis for success. Davis says his Organic Chemistry professor encouraged him to go to graduate school, and Davis went on to earn his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Vanderbilt University.

Since his graduate school days, Davis says so much has changed in the discipline of chemistry: “New analytical tools and techniques have made it possible to study many molecular species in ways never imaginable before. This has led to an explosion of research, especially at the interfaces between chemistry and biology, chemistry and physics, chemistry and materials and so on. “ Davis adds that today “more and more scientists are chemists in practice, but more and more people are eschewing labels as to the type of scientist they are—there is much more emphasis on the particulars of what they are doing, as opposed to what box that work might be best put into.  At the end of the day, everything material/tangible in this universe is chemistry, and it has an impact of unimaginable breadth on each of our lives.”

To illustrate the centrality of chemistry to our daily lives, Davis recommends that people look at photos of crude oil and sand and then look at their cell phones. He says, “Every bit of that phone started off in a barrel of oil or a handful of sand.  The people who turned it from the sand and oil into the materials from which the phone is assembled were chemists.” Our shoes, clothing, and our cars are the result of the work of chemists. “Arguably the only reason any of us isn't facing chronic starvation,” Davis says, “is thanks to the chemists who developed fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.”

In addition to the research Davis and his group perform, he says major ionic liquids research is also occurring in Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia. According to Davis, his “little research group here at USA” leads “the world in several sub-areas of ionic liquids research.  One of those—the area of 'functionalized' or 'task-specific' ionic liquids—was actually founded by [Davis’s group].  And it's really gratifying to observe that about 25% of the circa 8,000 annual publications worldwide on ionic liquids make use of our concept.”

In the near future, Davis plans to “to re-invent [his] research program—not abandon what [they are] doing but, rather, find new ways to make it relevant to other emerging areas of science.” He notes that there are nine ionic liquids researchers at USA in Chemistry, Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering, so Davis would like to see a national center on ionic liquids established on campus given this concentration of ionic liquids researchers.

The success of science in determining causes for effects and in helping to find solutions to complex natural and human-made problems accounts grants to science much prestige in many sectors of the U. S. Davis, however, cautions against unquestioning blind faith in the pronouncements of scientists. He says we should exercise a degree of self-reliance and question and research what we can. According to Davis, “Truth will always hold up to scrutiny. Don't be afraid to challenge the prevailing wisdom. When one scientist says ‘A’, see if any are saying ‘B’. Compare.  Who makes sense? Who is on the up-and-up, and who is being self-serving? To quote a source wiser than me ‘Prove all things; hold fast to those that are good.’”

When not in his classroom or his lab, Davis likes to spend time with his family. His wife is Patricia Davis, the Associate Director of the First Year Advising Center at USA. They have two daughters and a son. Davis loves Italian and Indian cuisines, and he likes to unwind watching television shows such as "Stranger Things," "Shut Eye," “Big Bang Theory” and “Young Sheldon” and watching college basketball and college football.

Share on Social Media