Faith Led Professor Back to Chemistry and Recovery
This story was written by Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News for publication on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. Read the original article.
Darren Thompson is a sought-after mentor and chemist who inspires students by opening a new world to them. He’s also an inventor, author of 41 published research papers and holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry.
But to get to this point, Thompson battled depression and had to overcome a dark side.
His brain damage and slurred speech serve as a reminder of a tragic time that Thompson overcame by renewing focus on science, embarking on a mission of saving others and embracing his Christian faith.
“The only thing I regret in my life is my decision to try to end it,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s second chance at life is a chance to save others
Part of the reason Thompson is drawn to helping young people is because professors took a chance on him when he wasn’t expecting it.
The other part is because Thompson got a second chance at life.
Back in the early 1990s, Thompson was studying at UC Santa Cruz, when Chemistry Professor Pradip Mascharak pulled him aside one day.
Thompson feared the worst.
“I thought he was going to accuse me of cheating on the exam,” Thompson said. “But no, he said, ‘the way you think, you should be a chemist.’ I took that to heart.”
At the same time, Thompson was playing guitar and performing with the band Anomie.
Thompson was battling depression and probing his emotions through music.
He wrote a song called “Not Blessed,” which he recorded with the band Faded in 1996 after graduating UC Santa Cruz with highest honors.
“I actually thought I was ‘not blessed’ and could therefore not appreciate the intrinsic loveliness of the objects and people around me,” Thompson said.
“Smiling while I rage inside,” goes one section of ‘Not Blessed.’ “No one sees me shed a tear.”
By the time he was 24, Thompson had published 21 research papers and he was performing and writing innovative, original music.
But he was raging inside.
On May 15, 1998, he attempted to end his life by ingesting cyanide.
Doctors were forced to place Thompson in a medically induced coma for three weeks. He woke up in a different hospital a few miles away and stayed for months.
Before he was finally discharged in October 1998, he spent his 25th birthday in the hospital. He weighed 130 pounds. A physical therapist held him upright.
He needed an electric wheelchair until December 2000.
He said, ’The way you think, you should be a chemist.’ I took that to heart. Darren Thompson
A professor’s faith in Thompson led him back to chemistry and recovery
UC Santa Cruz Professor Glenn Millhauser talked Thompson into going to grad school while Thompson was recovering.
Millhauser’s lab had fascinating equipment that inspired Thompson, like a mid-80s Bruker EPR spectrometer.
“Way cool,” Thompson said. “Warp speed, Mr. Scott” type of stuff.
Finding inspiration in his research, Thompson earned his Ph.D. in chemistry and biochemistry from UC Santa Cruz in 2009. He went on to be a post-doctoral research associate at California’s renown Scripps Research Institute.
But the cyanide poisoning left Thompson with brain damage. He alternated between peaks and valleys. But he noticed a decline in his cognitive abilities when he was doing his post-doctoral research. His speech has been slurred for 23 years. His cerebellum does not send nerve information rapidly. But he gained back 20 pounds and mobility.
Thompson mentors on his own time, unpaid
Thompson moved to Idaho in 2015 and within a year founded his company, Peptidaho, in the Sagle area. Peptidaho does management consulting and synthesizes two chemicals, one of which (TPG-FLAG) Thompson co-invented.
Thompson wanted to do more with aspiring chemists so when he heard there was a lab in Coeur d’Alene he worked his way into the office of Ray Von Wandruszka, University of Idaho’s chemistry department chair.
They formalized the relationship with the University of Idaho for the unpaid position, which allows Thompson to work with students in the lab as an adjunct professor of chemistry. It’s a summer gig, four days a week and about eight hours a day. He focuses on intense research projects and internships with a small number of students.
Most of his students are recommended by a teacher or know another student who studied with Thompson.
“Darren (Thompson) is a great vehicle,” said Charles Buck, associate vice president and executive officer for the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene. “In my years of being around labs and lab rats — almost 40 years now — it is very unusual.”
The research students do in (Thompson’s) lab is world-class. Tyler Siegford
Students brag about Thompson’s “world class” lab
Tyler Siegford, John Sanchez and Kristen Nethercott are three students who brag about the ways Thompson mentored and inspired them.
For Siegford, it was the lab work and the fact Thompson took a chance on someone with so little chemistry experience.
“As a freshman, I was doing real science,” said Siegford, who graduated from the University of Idaho earlier this year. “I was using expensive instruments and dangerous chemicals to complete a project that had the potential to impact the world.”
The research he did with Thompson was one of Siegford’s proudest accomplishments. He went on to present at research conferences here in Idaho and in Orlando, Florida.
“The research students do in (Thompson’s) lab is world-class,” Siegford said.
Sanchez overheard Siegford talking excitedly about their research, and Sanchez made a point to apply to work with Thompson in the summer of 2019.
“I found myself lost on so many topics,” Sanchez said. “But (Thompson) was there for me. He was patient with me and made a lot of my confusion disappear.”
Nethercott studied with Thompson in the lab when she was a high school student in Coeur d’Alene in 2019. Now she’s studying biochemistry on a full-ride scholarship at the University of Florida.
She credits Thompson with inspiring her interest in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.
“I never really struggled in school, but this internship was definitely a struggle and made me work hard to understand the concepts we were working with,” she said.
Thompson is raising money for newer, higher-tech equipment for the University of Idaho’s lab in Coeur d’Alene. Donations may made to the University of Idaho online. Under the “designator” field scroll down to select “UI Coeur d’Alene gifts.” In the next field marked “in honor of” type out “Dr. Thompson’s lab.”