UMass chemistry: catalyst for constructive change
by Marietta Pritchard
Chemists can be a determined lot, as this anecdote shows. Aware of the risks and dangers of their chosen field, they are nevertheless gripped by it. Current chemistry department head Paul Lahti suggests that perhaps it is the fascination of seeing something happen a color change, a fizz, a pop, even an explosion that initially draws the future chemist to the field. Then it is the opportunity to control that change toward a specific end that keeps the scientist at work in the laboratory.
In 1867, when the first students arrived at Massachusetts Agricultural College, the department of chemistry was merely a determined gleam in the presidents eye. At President William Smith Clarks insistence, the new campus had a chemistry building one of its original four buildings but it had, as yet, no equipment, no furnishings, no chemicals, and no one to teach the subject. For a time, the building served as a gymnasium. But Clark was set to change all that. He was in the process of persuading his old friend and former classmate at the University of Göttingen in Germany, Karl Anton Goessmann, to come to the new institution. By January of 1869, Goessmann was hard at work founding what was to become a core subject in the education of agricultural students. Indeed, until 1903, all students took all the available chemistry courses. After 1903, they were still required to take chemistry during their first two years. From then until 1939, all undergraduates were required to take some chemistry in order to graduate.
Chemistry, it was clear to the founders of the college, formed the basis of higher education for students of agriculture. Practical matters had to be taught, with students performing two hours of mandatory physical labor a day clearing the land, mucking out cattle and horse stalls, planting and pruning fruit trees. But to improve on what the ordinary farmer knew and was already doing, to grow better crops, better livestock, chemistry was essential. Chemistry ensured agricultural progress. It included, among other matters, the knowledge of soil and water analysis, of fertilizers, of the manufacture of pesticides.
When Goessmann arrived at Massachusetts Agricultural College, his herculean job description included providing analysis for fertilizers and soils whenever requested by the states farmers, in addition to developing a chemistry curriculum, teaching four hours a day, five days a week, outfitting and equipping the laboratory, and providing laboratory time for students on Saturday mornings.
In addition to all
this, Goessmann conducted his own research on sugar beet production, salt
marsh reclamation, cranberry growth, and fertilizer composition.
Goessmann, who taught until 1907 and died in 1910, would have been pleased, but perhaps not surprised to see what has become of the department he founded. You could think of chemistry at UMass as a family tree, with roots in agriculture and branches reaching into almost every aspect of human exploration and inquiry. Or you could think of it, in the words of department head Paul Lahti, as a complex interdisciplinary machine, standing in an essential working relationship and enmeshed with many others. Or you could use a chemical metaphor as David Adams does in the title of his unpublished history of the department: Chemistry is a catalyst for constructive change.
Paul Lahtis office in Lederle Graduate Tower contains a nameplate that reads: Herr Professor Dr. Paul Lahti. The object is a joke, but it reminds a visitor of chemistrys honored and often Germanic past. The building named after the universitys first chemistry professor, Goessmann Laboratory, is itself a reminder of that past. No longer used for synthetic activities or wet chemistry because it lacks modern ventilation systems, the building now mainly houses offices and instrumentation rooms, meaning rooms filled with computers. The original 1924 building was added on to in the 1950s, and now importantly holds the chemistry departments mementos and memorabilia. Room 20, the old lecture theater, has the Tiffany stained glass panel that was formerly placed at the entrance to the building. The panel, which contains the Göttingen coat of arms and various chemical crucibles, was given to Professor Goessmann by his students to celebrate his 80th birthday. The departments meeting room displays large oil portraits of Goessman and Joseph B. Lindsey, who headed the department from 1911 to 1928. For a number of years, the portraits were housed in the University Gallery until alumni funding became available to restore them.
Lahti is proud of the departments history as well as of its present status ranked in the top fifty departments, the top quarter nationally, its faculty publishing widely in respected journals and attracting over $3 million in research funds annually. But, he says, We havent spent a lot of time blowing our own horn. Perhaps not enough, he suggests. One thing we do really well, he says, is that weve kept a linkage toward applied science. In the pressure to develop a great research institution beginning in the 60s and 70s, there was a strong tilt toward basic science, and with it a tendency within the academy to look down on doing something with use in the real world. Both are viable approaches basic and applied but, in the great tradition of the land-grant college, says Lahti, if you understand the basic rules, sometimes you can find shortcuts to solving real problems.
Lahti was trained as a physical organic chemist, which means working with carbon and hydrogen to discover their properties. His own career shows the changes in the field in the direction of linkage. Labels on disciplines are getting less meaningful, he says. Interdisciplinary activities are much more the norm. For instance, he still works with organic molecules, but now, using computers, tries to fit them into crystals. He operates at a chemical/biological interface. The possible applications of his research include making polymers that can emit light; creating a computer screen that could be rolled up; devising drugs with specific activities and minimal side effects.
Everyone agrees that chemistry is a central science. Some might even argue that it is the central science, the mother of all sciences. But philosophical arguments aside, says Lahti, the UMass chemistry department stands at the center of different programs and intellectual neighbors, some of which are its offspring the departments of polymer science and engineering; biochemistry and molecular biology; and chemical engineering. Together they are known as the chemical sciences. An easy ability to reach out to other disciplines enlivens interactions for students, graduates, alumni and industry. We exemplify strength through diversity, Lahti says. It sounds like a slogan, but it really works.
From 1962 to 1975, the department was headed by William McEwen, who, according to Lahti, was responsible for a huge leap forward. McEwen is officially retired, but now edits the Heteroatom Chemistry journal from his office in the lower reaches of Goessmann Annex. Massachusetts State College had officially become the University of Massachusetts in 1947, but when McEwen arrived from the University of Kansas, he says chemistry here was a good college department, with excellent undergraduate teaching but only modest research efforts as aids to that teaching. Competition with other universities and the stunning success of the Soviet Unions first space satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, lit a fire under higher education in the sciences. The inside joke, under President John Lederle and Provost Oswald Tippo, was that the UMass chemistry department had set a modest goal: to become the best chemistry department in Massachusetts. This joke, according to McEwen, came true in the areas of analytical and polymer chemistry, with other areas not far behind.
McEwen was able to double the size of the faculty to forty, bringing in especially those with research orientation, to multiply the numbers of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Modern research equipment was purchased, and Lederle Graduate Tower, a modern high-rise building, was completed in the 70s.
Meanwhile, Richard Stein, who had arrived in 1950, had started the first polymer courses, and was the recipient of one of the first federal research contracts awarded to UMass. In 1966, he and William J. MacKnight established the polymer science and engineering program, which has since become a separate department with its own modern building. Stein was also responsible for helping to get the universitys computer center going. He is the current Goessmann Professor of Chemistry Emeritus, and with it holds the well-ornamented ceremonial Goessmann cup and saucer.
For instance, in hiring Bill Vining, says Gierasch, we made a conscious decision to think about chemical education. Thirty different majors at the university require some kind of chemistry course. Bill was able to innovate, move and shake, revolutionize the teaching of chemistry on campus. Hes gotten the faculty engaged in innovating too; he just won the universitys Distinguished Teaching Award.
Gierasch got the alumni engaged as well, initiating chemistry department alumni reunions and increasing support for the always lively departmental newsletter. This has paid off in alumni interest and involvement.
Like other research professors, Gierasch heads a research group. Hers is involved in studying protein folding, an important aspect of molecular life. Errors in protein folding have been shown to lead to diseases such as Alzheimers and cystic fibrosis, among others. In her February presentation, one of the Distinguished Faculty Lecture series, Gierasch demonstrated her expertise both as a scientist and as an educator. She illustrated her research with a cartoon of a scientist saying: We finished the genome map, but we dont know how to fold it.
One of the places chemistry is going, says Gierasch, is exemplified in the work of Assistant Professor Dhandapani Venkataraman, known almost universally as D.V., who came to UMass in 1999 from his postdoctoral work at Cornell. D.V. was drawn to UMass, he says, because of other people here especially Paul Lahti and Vince Rotello who were focusing on material science. D.Vs work involves catalytic materials, electronic materials and porous materials. He describes his own interest as seeing if we can control how molecules arrange themselves in solids or solutions.
The results of his work, which has, in part to do with creating substances with big pores, could have applications in oil refining and in water purification. There are, he says, naturally occurring inorganic molecules, zeolites, which act as molecular sieves. What hes trying to do is create similar sieves, but synthetically, using organic compounds. The particular challenge is to produce a result that is stable.
In addition to his classroom teaching, D.V. heads a research group comprising four graduate students and two undergraduates. Students are chosen for the group by evidence of ability and interest, says D.V., Who looks for a childlike, questioning attitude its what makes a scientist. And, he says, they should have the gut ability to go into a lab and do reactions. (A reaction is the combining of two molecules resulting in a different molecule.) D.V. tries to gauge a students level of interest in his particular project. If they say theyre applying because they have to satisfy a requirement, I ask them: Then why my group? Groups spend a lot of time together and in the lab, ten to twenty hours a week for undergraduates, double that for graduates. Their relation to each other and their professor is like a circle of colleagues or even like a family. The group leader has to take an almost parental role, says D.V., dealing with people on a highly individual basis, tailoring projects to their particular abilities.
The result, says senior Claire Cohen, a member of his research group, is an extraordinary learning opportunity. She describes D.V. as patient, enthusiastic, understanding, and exciting. She had entered UMass with the idea of majoring in exercise science, but a general chemistry class with Assistant Professor Ricardo Metz persuaded her to switch majors. And her experience in the D.V. group has solidified her skills and interests an invaluable experience, she says. Safety is primary D.V. requires us to dress appropriately, learn the hazards of the chemicals we are using, and will take the time to work with us if we are handling something new or relatively dangerous. In addition, Cohen has learned to search the literature for experimental procedures, to set up reactions under varying conditions, how to check the progress of a reaction and how to present results. She hopes to find a job in industry following graduation, then go on to graduate school.
But even out-of-class contacts with her professor result in a chance to learn and demonstrate the true scientists eternal curiosity. Says Cohen, On one car trip to meet a Cornell research group, D.V. taught me the chemistry of air bags, road paint, and anything else we came across on the way.
Students have been and have remained at the center of his concern. Mostly he has been responsible for assisting in, then running the freshman chemistry course, which has involved a large share of administration. A winner of the universitys Distinguished Teaching Award and an honorary doctor of science, Richason officially retired in 1976, but he has been working part-time ever since, mostly as the chief undergraduate advisor. I shepherd them, he says. Kids dont want to be told what to do thirty years ago, maybe. Still they have to get their RAC number (registration access code) from me. Richason has to know whats going on in the various courses in order to judge whether the student in front of him can handle the work. I provide a useful clearing house, he says.
His other essential role is with graduate student recruiting. There arent enough well-qualified graduate students to go around, nationally, says Richason. The department tries to fill its twenty to twenty-five Ph.D. slots with as many domestic students as possible, rather than recruiting from foreign countries. Departments of lesser stature might get ninety-five percent foreign grad students, he says. We get about fifty percent. The department wont bring in a graduate student unless he or she can be given full financial support for the five-year program. Im the first person they talk to, says Richason.
As Paul Lahti says, the study of chemistry starts with a fascination in seeing something happen. At the Massachusetts Agricultural College, the department of chemistry was born in the effort to improve agriculture, to grow better crops, to breed healthier livestock. Since then, chemists at UMass have branched out into many other fields, with applications for industry, medicine, and technology. But the chemist has a great responsibility too. History has educated us to think more about the future, says Lahti. Its no longer enough just to say: Better living through chemistry, the old motto of DuPont Chemicals. We have learned that the ability to influence our environment can bring with it new kinds of problems. But we can remedy and even avoid some of those problems, he says. In the year 2000, chemists have recognized the many tricks molecules can play and are deploying them for specific and sophisticated results. From pesticides to polymers, chemistry has come a very long way at UMass.