David Julian Sellmyer, 83, of Lincoln, director of the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience, George Holmes University Distinguished Professor of physics and astronomy, died at home surrounded by his family on March 25.
Sellmyer served nearly 50 years at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and was known internationally for his research related to magnetism, condensed matter physics and nanotechnology. His work leaves a profound impact on the Department of Physics and Astronomy and generations of students who learned from him and through his lab.
During commencement in May 2019, alumna Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Malcolm Gillis University Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University, discussed Sellmyer’s influence on her area of study and eventual career.
“I worked for two years in Professor David Sellmyer’s lab and it completely changed my life,” Richards-Kortum, a first-generation college student, said. “I truly had no idea that college professors did something called ‘research.’ Once I discovered it, I found that I loved it.
“Eventually, I found my way to bioengineering and the work I do today. But, I don’t think I would be here today talking with you if Dave Sellmyer hadn’t taken 20 minutes to meet with me.”
Richards-Kortum has received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and serves as director of the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health. She is known for providing vulnerable populations with access to life-saving health technologies that address deadly diseases and conditions, including cervical and oral cancer, premature birth, sickle cell disease and malaria.
Sellmyer was born Sept. 23, 1938 in Joliet, Illinois. He was raised by Marcus and Della Sellmyer with his three sisters (Judith, Karyl and Maureen) in Monee, Illinois.
He graduated from Crete-Monee High School in 1956 and was an active student, participating in basketball, football and baseball, while also playing trumpet in the band.
Sellmyer attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics. He also met Catherine Zakas at the university and the two married in 1962. The couple moved to Lansing, Michigan, where Sellmyer attended Michigan State University and earned a doctorate in physics. After graduation, he accepted a position as a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he worked for seven years.
In 1972, Sellmyer joined the faculty in Nebraska U’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
He served as chair of the department from 1978 to 1984 and was founding director of the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience (which was established in 1988). In these roles, he repeatedly brought science and engineering faculty together to write collaborative research proposals to federal agencies.
“Explosive growth of the department in the 1960s and early 1970s meant a potential cascade of imminent retirements when Dave became chair,” said Dan Claes, current chair of the department and professor of physics and astronomy. “Recognizing growth couldn’t come by branching into new, promising areas, Dave first articulated the critically essential need to keep our most successful research areas at full strength. This notion of maintaining a critical mass of active researchers in a very limited number of sub-fields of physics has framed the department’s strategic plans ever since, and helped develop research programs with national recognition.”
In 2015, Sellmyer secured funding from the National Science Foundation to establish the Nebraska Nanoscale Facility — which is one of 16 sites that constitute the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure program and serve academia, industry and federal research related to nanomaterials fabrication and characterization.
During his career, Sellmyer authored more than 700 publications, administered approximately $100 million in extramural funding, and mentored 30 doctoral students and 50 postdoctoral fellows.
He was instrumental in securing funding and institutional support for the university’s Voelte-Keegan Nanoscience Research building. And, recently, a permanently endowed faculty chair was gifted and named to honor Sellmyer’s legacy of scholarly research and creative activity. The Sellmyer Chair is intended to recruit faculty with a strong publication record, proven effectiveness in building experimental collaborations, and success in securing collaborative grants.
Claes is reminded of Sellmyer’s incredible leadership every day he walks into the office.
“(The Voelte-Keegan Nanoscience Research Center) is a constant reminder of how far Dave’s vision of a signature program in materials science has taken us,” Claes said. “It’s a constant and impressive reminder of his legacy. I don’t believe there’s anyway we could overstate the impact Dave has had on the department, university and specifically our materials science program. It’s a legacy that will be with us this forever.”
Sellmyer loved university life and was active in the culture it offered. He was a loyal Husker football and volleyball fan; and, he and his wife were active in the Faculty Dance Club and St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church.
In his free time, Sellmyer loved to read, listen to classical music, tinker at his workbench, tend to the backyard garden, and take walks with one of his many black Labrador retrievers. His travels with Catherine took them throughout the United States and internationally to China, Greece, Germany, Spain and Canada.
Sellmyer is survived by his wife, Catherine, and their three children, Rebecca (Brian) Albert, Julia (David) Reddel, and Mark (Evan Pruitt) Sellmyer; and 10 grandchildren.
The family requests memorials to the David and Catherine Sellmyer Fund (Department of Physics) via the University of Nebraska Foundation; Lincoln Symphony Orchestra; or American Cancer Society.
Condolences can be left on the Wyuka website.