Nobel Laureates, today and yesterday

Early in the morning on October 5, we learned that Dan Shechtman received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the discovery of quasicrystals.” Professor Shechtman is a faculty member in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, a research scientist in the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory on our campus, and a professor at the Technion in Israel.

Professor Shechtman’s discovery of a new classification of materials wasn’t accepted immediately. In fact, he faced initial resistance and withstood intense peer pressure against his work. Despite opposition that culminated in him being kicked out of his research group at the time, Professor Shechtman continued to quietly gather evidence, communicate his findings, and draw others to appreciate and recognize his discovery. Today, he is recognized for an insight and breakthrough that, literally, resulted in textbooks being re-written.

This exciting news of an engineering faculty member being awarded a Nobel Prize brought back a memory of an encounter I had as a 17-year-old college freshmen with a different Nobel Laureate. When I was beginning my study of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, I took an introductory chemistry course in my first semester just like every other engineering, science, and pre-med freshman. The lectures were held in a cavernous auditorium, and multiple laboratory sections were held in parallel each week to accommodate everyone. A team of graduate teaching assistants managed the lab classrooms, and a laboratory professor would wander around down the hall, visit each of the lab classrooms, and generally make sure that the teaching assistants and students stayed on-track.

During the very first experiment of this class, the lab professor came in our room and walked straight over to the bench where my partner and I were working on an acid-base pH experiment. (We must have looked like we needed some extra help.) He introduced himself as Glenn Seaborg—a name I was certainly familiar because he was one of Berkeley’s Nobel Laureates. (The campus, in fact, has a parking lot reserved just for its Laureates, a valuable perk of winning the prize!) Professor Seaborg had worked on the Manhattan project and been awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in discovering and studying trans-uranium elements.

As we were talking and doing the experiment, my lab partner (that’s how I remember it, at least) somehow managed to spill acid on Professor Seaborg’s hand. My initial reaction was fear and panic—what do they do to a freshman who spills chemicals on a Nobel Laureate? But Professor Seaborg just brushed it off, ran cold water over his hand, and reassured us that he was fine. We chatted for another 10 minutes, and then he moved on to the next classroom. That was the only time that I saw him, and although it was a spontaneous interaction, his patience and mentoring toward me as a young student made an impact that I clearly remember.

These sorts of experiences and role models are so important at a university.   I’m excited to think about the inspiring conversations Professor Shechtman will have with Iowa State’s students and what kind of difference he’ll make in their education.