Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Melvin Duane Joesten has died at 89

Melvin Duane Joesten
Melvin Duane Joesten

Melvin Duane Joesten, a chemistry professor and co-founder of Vanderbilt Student Volunteers for Science, died on Jan. 17 in Nashville after a brief illness. He was 89 years old.

Joesten, who retired in 1998, was a member of the chemistry department at Vanderbilt for more than 30 years. His academic career began with a B.S. from Northern Illinois State Teachers College (now Northern Illinois University) in 1954. After two years in the U.S. Army and two years of teaching high school science, he enrolled in the University of Illinois and earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees (1962). He then took an appointment at Southern Illinois University before joining the Vanderbilt chemistry department in 1966.

Joesten founded VSVS in 1994 and continued his participation until long after his retirement. When he received an American Chemical Society Salute to Excellence Award in 2010, he referred to the program as “a dream come true.”

In this service program, teams of Vanderbilt students take science kits into Nashville middle schools and guide the middle schoolers in hands-on experiments, helping them learn that science is much more than just the memorization of facts. The VSVS members also serve as role models to stimulate teens’ interest in higher education and teaching.

At its start, VSVS had 75 Vanderbilt student participants. The program grew steadily until by 2018 it was one of the largest student volunteer activities on campus, typically involving about 600 students each semester. It is estimated that over the course of the program, VSVS teams have reached more than 100,000 children.

In closely related work, Joesten was a co-principal investigator on a major National Science Foundation-funded program for K-12 science education from 2000 to 2002. He developed lesson materials that led to the expansion of Vanderbilt science outreach activities to include seventh- and eighth-grade students locally and rural middle schoolers in Middle Tennessee and some in other states.

Joesten’s efforts earned him several awards, including Vanderbilt Student Organization Adviser of the Year (1998), Harvie Branscomb Distinguished Professor (1995–96), Faculty Buick Volunteer Spirit Award (1994), Tennessee Department of Education Award (1992) and a Fulbright Lectureship (Ireland, 1972–73).

When not doing science, Joesten enjoyed singing in barbershop groups and in the sanctuary choir of Calvary United Methodist Church, where he was a member for over 50 years. He also loved spending time with his family at the beach—in South Carolina in summer and Florida in winter.

Joesten is survived by his wife of 68 years, Maribel, a daughter, a son, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.