Remembering My Research Experiences at F&M by Jim Morrison
I guess you could say I had a non-traditional undergraduate research experience at Franklin and Marshall. It was not exactly the usual senior thesis or project kind of thing, but a more diverse and eclectic journey that was, however, totally transformational.
I entered F&M in the fall of 1954 as a microbiology major on a Union Carbide Scholarship. UC Scholars enjoyed many benefits, not the least of which was having Professor Robert Cross, Chairman of the Chemistry Department, as an academic adviser. Other perks, in addition to full tuition, fees and books, included a lavish annual dinner at the Hamilton Club in Lancaster with Union Carbide Executives and the President of the College, plus the opportunity to work a summer at some Union Carbide facility.
Early on in my F&M experience I met Professors Fred (“The Snake”) Snavely and Fred Suydam. A mildly eccentric F&M Academy graduate had been my high school chemistry teacher but I was blown away by the potent mix of eccentricity, intellect and humor embodied in the two Freds as they taught freshman chemistry. I looked forward to every class, and I began to think about maybe changing my major to chemistry. At the end of my sophomore year I made the move. In some respects it felt almost like joining a fraternity. In retrospect, I think I made the decision, in part, because I wanted to enjoy the company of those already there, and in my limited perspective that meant especially “Burly Bob” Cross and the two Freds. But I had also had a kind of epiphany while taking organic chemistry, which I loved. I began to feel I had discovered what I wanted to be, and my subsequent research experiences only enhanced my passion for the subject.
Bob Cross warmly embraced the idea of changing my major. He found me a part-time job working as an assistant to Bill Duck, in a Pennsylvania Confectioners Association Laboratory in the basement of Fackenthal. Bill was a chemist/engineer/jack-of-all-trades kind of guy who became my first research mentor. I could not have had a better teacher. Bill not only knew everything about confectionery science, he was an extraordinary story teller and a great improvisor. When he wanted to find out how various formulations would behave when chewed he obtained a set of false teeth and constructed an original device to measure it. He developed chocolates that did not bloom (form white spots on aging) and lollipops that did not get sticky in high humidity. The latter earned Bill a mention in a New York Times article. I loved the mix of theory and practice and the hands-on quality of it all. I never thought of it as research; it was just fun!
From time to time Snavely or Suydam (or Al, the lively Fackenthal custodian) would drop by the lab for coffee, or to try to mooch some of Bill's special chocolates, and the ensuing repartee' would be sensational. I would have paid to work there just so I could hear it. Bill's special chocolates were developed for a manufacturer who wanted a unique product to give at Christmas to important customers and suppliers. Bill had me fractionate cocoa butter to get a very sharp-melting variety, and we ball milled chocolate formulations for months to achieve an ultra-smooth, very sharp-melting blend. The result was a chocolate confection that “exploded” in the mouth and flooded the tongue with fabulous texture and flavor. Along the way Bill taught me all about fats and oils, methylated xanthines, etc., and how to design good research experiments.
In the summer of my junior year Bob Cross arranged for me to work at the research laboratories of Union Carbide Plastics in Bloomfield, NJ. There I enjoyed the tutelage of two experienced organic chemists who were working on Ziegler-Natta type, low pressure, vinyl polymerizations. The objective was to find halogen-free catalysts because trace amounts of halogen remaining in polymer made with more traditional halogen-containing catalysts caused corrosion that shortened the life of metal polymer extruding dies. My job was to prepare many variants of vanadyl esters for investigation. These were used to make catalysts. Most of the esters were high-boiling liquids and they had to be purified by vacuum distillation. Taking a page from my Bill Duck book, I designed and constructed a Rube Goldberg style distillation device that I thought might increase throughput and shorten the time it took to vacuum distill. My Carbide research mentors were skeptical at first, but when my ester production rate quadrupled they were won over. It was my first truly independent study. Later I snatched a victory from disaster when a batch of ester was accidentally pyrolyzed. Rather than throw out the resulting black crystalline residue, I submitted it for testing and thus discovered one of the best catalyst formulation additives ever. Again, Bill Duck to the rescue. Bill never threw anything away until he knew what it was or what it might do.
In early September of 1957, I and several other F&M chemistry majors went to New York City to attend the 132nd ACS National Meeting, my first of many. Attendance at this meeting set a new record of 15,047 registrants, 2,523 more than the previous record set in 1954, also in NYC. It was reported that the new high was probably due, at least in part, to the 132nd being the first national meeting at which students were able to take advantage of a reduced registration fee of just $2.00. I remember that Professors Snavely, Suydam, Heller and Cross also attended the meeting. For reasons I can no longer recall, some of us had been unable to find hotel rooms. Bob Cross insisted that we bunk down in the rooms of the aforementioned professors. I'm not sure they were all thrilled at that prospect because there were only two single beds in each of their two rooms. Bob somehow managed to obtain enough pillows for makeshift beds on the floor. But there wasn't much sleep anyway because poker was played far into the night, not to mention the 85 decibel snoring. The whole experience sounds horrible now, but male bonding takes many forms. We were honored to be there. It was as if we had finally been accepted into the club.
In my senior year, Fred Suydam agreed to watch over me as I continued some of the work I had done at Union Carbide Plastics as a senior project. In his patented wry manner he insisted that I would be teaching him, and it had better be good. There was a Parr low-pressure reaction unit in the organic teaching laboratory. It was not in good shape. Fred once commented that he thought this was to be a chemistry project but now it looked like auto mechanics 101. One day he came by the lab and saw parts and debris spread out on the benches. “Looks like a filthy flicker's nest in here”, he said, and walked out. Many years later, at the University of New Hampshire, I pulled together a group of students and had them design and build from scratch a low cost, low-pressure reactor using readily available parts. I dubbed it The Filthy Flicker Project. The results were published in the Journal of Chemical Education. [An Inexpensive Low-Pressure Reactor, W.F. Masler, R.E. Burnett, J.D. Morrison, P.A. Chaney and C.M. Wheeler, J. Chem. Educ., 1975, 52(3), p. 202]
I did accomplish a little original research my senior year, making and testing a few new polymerization catalysts. More important were the many research conferences I had with Fred. These always started with a chalk talk during which I explained my research progress. He always had questions, and more than a few times he surprised me with his knowledge of organic chemistry. I had always thought of him as an inorganic or analytical chemist because of the courses he taught. He was always attentive and encouraging. One day, in an off hand way, he told some stories of his graduate school days at Northwestern University, and I learned that he had completed an organic chemistry Ph.D. thesis under the direction of Professor L.Carroll King. Fred asked me, again in an off hand way, if I had thought about graduate school. Unknown to him, I had just obtained a chemistry graduate program brochure from the University of Arizona, which I showed him. Included in it was a photograph of a beautiful campus golf course. He looked through the brochure, and then tossed it in the waste basket. “You're not going to Arizona to play golf”, he said, “you're going to Northwestern”. Soon after that, he told me the deal was all set. He said he had called the NU chemistry department and application forms were on the way. In retrospect, I think he had actually been setting that up for months.
Many times over the course of my career, I have realized how fortunate I was to have found a home in the F&M chemistry department. I benefited enormously from the collegial environment I found there. My closest chemistry mentors, especially Bob Cross, Fred Suydam and Bill Duck, set high standards and prepared me well. But, over time, I have more fully realized how much the encouragement these men gave me (which lasted long after I graduated) was crucial to my development. It is this caring and personal gift of themselves that I have come to appreciate the most. I have tried to pass it on to my own students.