Calorimetry Research with Dr. James Spencer By Wendy Wolbach ‘84
I recall vividly the beginning of my career in research: I was taking general chemistry as a first year student with Dr. Spencer in Spring 1981 and arrived early for lab. I had noticed upperclassmen doing research and I wondered where they came up with their research ideas. So I asked him, and instead of giving me a pat answer, he invited me to visit his lab the following afternoon. I arrived and was amazed to find a handful of students, including other freshmen, working busily in his lab with all sorts of “exotic” equipment–gas cylinders, a glove box, calorimeters. I was intimidated but intrigued, and he suggested I stop by periodically to see what was happening. I did so, and in short order he offered me a job doing summer research, to be paid by one of his research grants. I did research with Dr. Spencer for four summers, culminating in five papers. I loved being in the lab, and I knew by the end of my first summer that I would pursue a PhD in chemistry.
Dr. Spencer was a fantastic teacher and research mentor – knowledgeable, of course, but calm, with a dry sense of humor and the patience of Job. He taught us the necessary techniques, then left us to practice and perfect the methods we would be using: chemical purification (distillation, recyrstallization, sublimation), dry box techniques, the use of the calorimeters, calculations. Exciting stuff for a student who had not yet taken organic chemistry! Once our results were reproducible and correct, he entrusted us with the expensive chemicals. He let us work at our own pace, with no pressure. Newer students learned from older students, and so we learned the value of teamwork. While he was not an every day presence in the lab, he received daily research reports and requests to order chemicals from us, and so he always knew exactly what was going on. But because we couldn’t necessarily run to him with every question or problem we also learned self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and independent thinking. We made occasional mistakes but we learned from them and such mistakes were rarely repeated.
His calm and patience were tested in myriad ways. I recall breaking a Dewar flask (a critical part of my calorimeter equipment) one day. I had never used one before and this was the only one we had in the lab. I was devastated and began the long walk to his office to confess my crime, certain that I had brought his summer research to an end. He looked at me with no expression and asked me to follow him. I figured I was being led to the guillotine. Instead, he led me to a cabinet in the p-chem lab containing dozens of identical Dewar flasks. I probably gave him a huge laugh at my obvious relief! I learned there is little that can happen in the lab from which one cannot recover.
When I think back, it is amazing that we accomplished as much as we did, given the amount of fun we had, frequently instigated by ringleaders Scott Barton ’82 or Muriel Mankuta ‘85. One lost day of research was the day of the royal wedding between Lady Diana Spencer (Dr. Spencer claimed no relation) and Prince Charles in July 1981. The students arrived at work at 3 or 4 AM, with pancake mix and champagne in tow and procured a TV from the AV department. We took over the conference room with its kitchenette and ate and drank and watched wedding festivities for hours. We were then useless the rest of the day and went home, having done not a bit of work. Dr. Spencer never complained, at least not to us!
Some of the most fun we had was at his expense. Dr. Spencer has a noticeable southern accent. Together with his dry sense of humor and calm disposition, he reminded us of a retired southern colonel, and so for his birthday one year, we bought him a lab coat with “The Colonel” embroidered over the front pocket We used to make fun of his accent, especially how he pronounced “triiodide ion”, and so we had his birthday cake decorated to reflect his pronunciation, “Trah-ah-ah-dahd-Ahn”. We also completely toilet papered his silver VW Beetle and tied it with a big purple crepe paper bow. Though I’m not sure that part of his birthday “gift” was appreciated!
Another bit of fun we had at his expense was “the closet”. He got married one summer, and while he was away on his honeymoon, Dr. Yoder came up with the idea of building a special closet in Dr. Spencer’s office that his door would open into. The students would decorate it (in the least possible taste) to celebrate his recent honeymoon “activities”. So Dr. Yoder procured some two-by-fours and paneling, and before long the three-sided insert was built and in place, and we commenced decorating. I’m sure we got more laughs out of doing it than Dr. Spencer got from discovering it on his return. We decorated the hallway and the outside of his office door with computer printout and crepe paper to greet his return.
Dr. Spencer made a big and positive impression on his students—formers students still talk about him and our summer days in the lab. A number of us were influenced enough to attempt to follow in his footsteps as chemistry faculty. I teach and conduct research these days with my own undergraduate students, with my experiences at F&M serving as a model. I am reminded often of the lessons I learned working in Dr. Spencer’s lab.