Jonathan Kenny, late chemistry professor, leaves lasting impact on environmental studies and his students

Jonathan Kenny, a professor of chemistry who died unexpectedly on Dec. 9, is pictured. Courtesy Anna Miller via Tufts University

Jonathan Kenny, an environmental chemistry expert and chemistry professor, died unexpectedly on Dec. 9 at the age of 67, according to an email sent to the Tufts community. 

Kenny began his journey in Tufts’ chemistry department in 1981 following a postdoctoral fellowship at Wesleyan University, according to a university press release. Prior to this, he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a concentration in mathematics from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago

“[Kenny] felt at home in an academic environment, where his intellect and ideas were valued and where he could contribute,” his former student Thien Khuu (A’18) wrote in an email to the Daily.

And contribute, he did. Among other projects, Kenny researched the uses of fluorescence-based methods to combat environmental problems and studied the environmental sensing of groundwater contaminants and dissolved sediment trends in natural water. His work was featured in publications like The Journal of Physical Chemistry, Water, and Analytical Chemistry. 

Kenny also collaborated frequently with Ann Rappaport, a senior lecturer in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. Having worked on hazardous waste problems on the state government level, Rappaport knew there was an urgent need for innovative detection methods to shape government policy and prosecute those responsible for contamination. Kenny developed technologies to improve the detection of contaminants in groundwater.  

“His work was a great example of scientific inquiry that both advanced knowledge in the field and could help reduce peoples’ exposure to harmful pollutants in drinking water,” Rappaport wrote in an email to the Daily. “We worked well together—it was rewarding and enjoyable.”  

Kenny was also involved with the Tufts Institute of the Environment, the Environmental Studies Program and Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute, according to Colin Orians, professor of biology and director of environmental studies at Tufts. Kenny’s extensive participation “showed a level of passion for the environment that was unequaled at Tufts,” Orians wrote in an email to the Daily.  

Tufts Institute of the Environment, Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute and the Office of Sustainability released a joint statement celebrating Kenny’s long list of accomplishments in the environmental studies community. 

“His input was invaluable, his passion ever present, and his willingness to roll up his sleeves and help was so appreciated.”

Colin orians
Director of Environmental Studies

In the 1990s, Tufts pioneered the Environmental Literacy Institute, which Kenny was involved in. The program was designed to “bring together faculty across the university to read, think, discuss and experience [the] environment and then modify an existing course or plan a new course,” Rappaport saidThe program’s success extended to research collaborations and social connections across campus.

Over the last decade, Kenny and Orians also worked closely to strengthen the Environmental Studies Program.

“His input was invaluable, his passion ever present, and his willingness to roll up his sleeves and help was so appreciated,” Orians said. “Jonathan was an interdisciplinary thinker who strove to use his chemistry and science training to reduce the environmental impact of Tufts and the larger society.” Rappaport echoed Orian’s sentiments.

 “Jonathan embraced the idea of weaving sustainability into all aspects of teaching and learning as well as university operations,” she said.

During Kenny’s nearly 40 years at Tufts, he captivated undergraduate and graduate students through his physical and environmental chemistry courses. Passionate about stymieing climate change, he and Rappaport co-taught a course, Telling the Climate Justice Story, which explored climate justice issues such as pipeline constructions. “It was a fantastic course that had a huge impact on the students,” Orians said.

“As co-teacher, I learned that [Kenny] thrived on complexity and took the view that more is almost always better,” Rappaport said. In need of teaching assistance for their course, instead of choosing one applicant, Kenny chose three.

Furthermore, Kenny enlisted the help of his oldest son, Timothy, to craft an advertisement for the course that mimicked a movie trailer. “The trailer’s over the top, dramatic music, outrageous images and tongue in cheek humor really signaled Jonathan’s commitment to nurturing creativity,” Rappaport said. 

The final student presentations for the course were a celebratory fair of their own. Emulating the Academy Awards, Kenny and Rappaport — respectively dressed in a white linen suit and a beaded gown — made their entrance as hosts at the Granoff Music Center. There, participants were honored with live music performed by Professor of Music  John McDonald and flutist Elizabeth Erenberg.  

In addition to his teaching and research, Kenny was an adviser for chemistry majors. As a mentor to those who participated in his research, Kenny’s friendships with students blossomed outside the scope of chemistry. He made an effort to reach beyond the classroom walls to get to know students and guide them along their paths. 

One such former student and friend is Thien Khuu (A’18), now a Ph.D. candidate studying chemistry at Yale University, who met Kenny in his Physical Chemistry II class. During an office hours appointment, Kenny spoke to Khuu about his love of writing and said it had been one of his life goals to improve science communication with the public, Khuu said.

Khuu was a double major in chemistry and English, and while he spoke with Kenny, the professor revealed his admiration for a book — “Krazy Kat” (1988) — written by Khuu’s English adviser, Jay Cantor. Kenny later went on to serve as an adviser to Khuu’s Experimental College course about science communication. He was also a member of Khuu’s Senior Honors Thesis Committee and wrote a letter of recommendation for him when he was applying to graduate school.

Before writing the letter of recommendation, Kenny wanted to get to know Khuu better.  Kenny set up an initial lunch meeting, and the two continued to meet monthly at Hotung Café or the Mayer Campus Center. During their lunches, they would discuss their personal lives, aspirations and hobbies, which included their shared appreciation for writing and chemistry. As a token of gratitude, Khuu later gifted Kenny a signed copy of “Krazy Kat.”

Kenny extended an accepting and empathetic attitude toward his students, according to Khuu. “[He taught me that] I don’t have to fit in any mold to be a scientist, I can just be myself; and being inclusive in science as well as in life is important, no matter who you are,” Khuu said. “No professor ever told me something that personal, and I really appreciated his trust and friendship.”

Kenny encouraged students to follow their passions at and beyond Tufts. “He was proud of students who engaged in civil disobedience to promote climate justice, he supported divestment from fossil fuels and he used his gifts to advance sustainability at Tufts and beyond,” Rappaport said.

According to Kenny’s obituary in the Rutland Herald, he leaves behind his wife of 44 years, Anne Foley, and their five children. Kenny’s actions and passions illustrate his kind and forward-thinking spirit which uplifted students and fellow faculty members while working toward a better future.