1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I became fascinated with science in the 4th grade (1962) when I read the Disney book Our Friend the Atom, followed by a large number of other science books in my small town’s library. I got a chemistry set a year later and started playing around with standard “cook-book” reactions that progressed into preparing my own flash and smoke powder mixtures for fireworks. My school asked us every year what we wanted to be when we grew up and from 4th grade through 11th grade I said nuclear physicist. Taking calculus in my senior year in high school made me realize that I did not have the math abilities to be a physicist, so I “dropped down” to chemistry, which I was enjoying more and more.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?
My first choice would be science teacher in a primary/secondary school setting. I am a gifted, enthusiastic teacher and have a broad love of science. I see a high fraction of students in primary and secondary schools here in the USA not getting good general science educations because their teachers do not have much appreciation or understanding of science. Unfortunately, there are very few hands-on science activities in most schools nor connections to everyday real life. If I had to get away from science or teaching, I would be interested in a business career. I have always been interested in business topics and have worked in a small-town pharmacy, a zinc refinery, and a steel mill. I have seen how poor management decisions have led to a company’s decay and eventual closing (long before our current economic situation).
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
Our newest project is developing transition-metal catalysts for alkene hydration, which is the reaction of alkenes with water to produce linear alcohols or other oxygen-containing products. There are no examples of this for unactivated alkenes and Dr. James Roth, discoverer of the Monsanto Acetic Acid process, has called alkene hydration catalysis one of the 10 unsolved problems of industrial catalysis. We submitted a “blue-sky” (i.e., no preliminary results) proposal to Sasol North America and they took a big chance and funded this exploratory project. Although we are still in the early stages of studying this, we believe that we have indeed catalyzed a reaction between water and simple 1-alkenes under mild conditions. But the situation, naturally, turns out to be complicated with alkene oligomerization taking over to give a completely unexpected primary product.
As to where we would like to see this lead? A practical and environmentally friendly industrial catalyst would be fantastic. It is very rare, however, for academically discovered catalysts to make the transition to industrial commodity chemicals, so we are very realistic about this.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?
Tough question! Ben Franklin would be my choice (without a lot of deep thinking). I grew up in eastern PA and visited the Franklin Institute, a wonderful science museum in Philadelphia, many times as a kid. Ben Franklin was a remarkable person: scientist, politician, businessman, diplomat, and bon vivant. As a scientist I would like his insight into the politics that went on for the Declaration of Independence and thoughts on the constitution and the compromises involved, especially with regards to the second amendment (“right to bear arms”) as it relates to the USA today.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?
Last week! Although I don’t do synthesis anymore, I do help out with our in situ catalyst spectroscopic studies (FT-IR & NMR) and when new autoclave runs are being done. I helped one graduate student condense and transfer butadiene to an autoclave for a hydroformylation run; another with setting up an ethylene hydroformylation experiment; and a senior student with a FT-IR study using a new silicon crystal attenuated total reflectance reaction cell. At US$660 per crystal, I usually mount and dismount the crystal in the cell for reaction studies and cleaning.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
Book: either The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972 by William Manchester or the Boy Scout Manual. The Boy Scout Manual if survival looked difficult, otherwise the Glory and the Dream as a thick and engaging history of the USA during some remarkable times.
Music: Hmmm – batteries wouldn’t last long (solar power?), Best of the Moody Blues ranks as one of my favourite groups and I don’t get tired of listening to them.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?
Margaret Cavanaugh (National Science Foundation – National Science Board). Marge was my NSF program director a long time ago and had a very positive impact on my career. I haven’t had a chance to talk to her much over the last 10 years as she has moved away from chemistry. Marge has been in both academics (chemistry professor) and involved in high level NSF activities. I’d like to keep her thinking about chemistry and Reactions might help.