Rainer Ernst Glaser
Rainer Glaser, born June 18, 1957, Freudenstadt, Germany.
Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of
Missouri-Columbia. Studying topics in organic and bioorganic chemistry
and materials science with modern theoretical methods and in
combination with laboratory experimentation. Several projects are being
pursued in collaboration with groups elsewhere in the US, in Europe and
in Japan creating opportunities for student exchanges. The
interdisciplinary approach to pertinent problems exposes students to a
broad spectrum of diverse techniques and provides a unique
preparation for careers in modern research areas positioned at the
interfaces between the classical disciplines.
Major life events:
- Deamination chemistry and the alkylation and modification of DNA
- Organic ferroelectric crystalline materials for nonlinear optics
- Phosphorus analogues of diazonium ions: theory and experimental
- Methods of topological electron and spin density analysis
- Computer-mediated communication, collaborative learning and peer
review in chemical education
Student exchange with France in high school. Student
exchange with UC Berkeley while in college. Meeting wife Julia Chang in
1985. The birth of daughter Kayla Jade in 1997.
Curious, bold in my approaches, and disciplined
and balanced in my final judgements.
How did you get your current job?
In the fall of 1988, while I was a post-doc at Yale, the University of
Missouri-Columbia announced an opening for a physical organic
chemist in Chemical & Engineering News. I applied, interviewed
and was lucky enough to be offered the position.
What qualities so you think clinched it for you?
I had a strong publication record: 13 papers from my PhD thesis work. In
addition, I had pursued some independent research and succeeded at
publishing that work while I was still a graduate student. My very first
independent paper on diazonium ions was published in the Journal of the
American Chemical Society as a full paper.
What do you enjoy about your work?
The challenge and the synergism of teaching and research and the
contact with students. The freedom to pursue fundamental research
ideas. My greatest enjoyment comes from understanding known things
so well that my students and I can predict and realise new things. Ideally,
one uses theory and experimentation in concert in this process of
Is it always synergistic though?
The two aspects are, of course, always competing for time! I think the
way out of the dilemma will involve peer-assisted study groups. There is
some evidence to show that such strategies can solve a large
percentage of typical student problems while reducing the professor's
contact time substantially.
What do you hate about your industry?
Hate is a strong word. There are many things that I would like to see
improved. I think that the decisions about the direction of science should
be more with scientists and less with administrators. There are way too
many of the latter at every level it seems.
How would one get all the red-tape wrapped up without administrators
They are needed, there is no question about that. I just think they should
be more the facilitators of research ideas than the policy setters and
controllers that they are.
What was your first experiment?
I started with a chemistry set, a very supportive father, a tolerant mother,
and an 'Apotheker' willing to sell me everything I possibly could have
asked for. One of the first experiments that left a lasting impression, was
the generation of carbon monoxide by treatment of concentrated formic
acid with concentrated sulfuric acid. It took guts. I was only 14.
Did it work?
Yes, I made the CO and it burned with a light blue flame. It looked great
What was your chemistry teacher at school like?
Herr Roth! Well, he did not have an easy time with us. There were
several of us with an interest in chemistry and we often already knew
what was being taught. One time, I remember, we (I will not reveal the
names of the collaborators) were stupid enough to throw some sodium
chunks into a water filled aquarium-sized glass container that was
standing on the table in front of the blackboard. The effect was
spectacular. Loud noise, several small explosions, fire and bits of
sodium flying around. Herr Roth eventually came into the room and saw
what was going on. He was furious, believe you me! Other than on this
one remarkable occasion, Herr Roth was always calm and I can only say
the very best about him. He was personable, well organised,
knowledgeable and always tried to be fair. He still teaches at the Kepler-Gymnasium in
Are your 'collaborators' well known then?
They are Achim Guenter and Roland Maichel. Great guys. Roland is also
into chemistry and Achim I lost track of.
What is your greatest strength?
I like to work at the interface between classical disciplines. I have never
felt limited by the artificial boundaries of a field and I have always
enjoyed keeping an open mind. While I am an 'organic' chemist by
training, my students and I have published articles on physical,
theoretical, computational, inorganic and organometallic chemistry. Most
recently, we have worked on problems in toxicology and materials
science and we collaborate with mathematicians and physicists. As to
teaching, I think my greatest strength lies in explaining complicated
matters in simple yet correct language. I am also trying to contribute to
the modernisation of college chemistry instruction both with regard to the
integration of modern content and with regard to the integration of
modern teaching technology and pedagogy.
Interdisciplinary research is becoming more important then?
Yes, and is now being recognised by the funding agencies as well. NSF
now makes efforts to solicit proposals for interdisciplinary research and
they are trying hard to have such proposals reviewed by people from
different fields. An important aspect of these grants concerns training.
One will have to see how well that will succeed.
What are your weaknesses?
I have high expectations and I tend to be impatient. I don't easily tolerate
What advice would you give a younger scientist?
Look around as much as possible. Do as many internships as possible
at universities of all sizes and in different parts of the country. Do some
undergraduate research and learn about the process and the topics.
Then, make a good choice, work on the most difficult problems and give
it all you have.
What would you rather be if not a scientist?
There are several areas in science that I find attractive. Outside of
science, I think joining the diplomatic corps could be very interesting.
What draws you to that particular occupation?
Travel, languages, art, culture, people.
Which scientists from history would you like to meet?
Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schroedinger and
Richard Feynmann. Perhaps we can also invite Leonardo da Vinci,
Voltaire and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
What would you ask them?
I don't know and it does not really matter. I would merely introduce them
to each other and enjoy the ensuing conversation.
What do you think they would say to each other?
It would be original whatever it was!
How has the Internet influenced what you do?
This is an easy question to answer: It has changed in a revolutionary way
everything I do. I communicate via email with people on four continents
on a daily basis, I locate information using full text searches on entire
journals, I submit manuscripts electronically and publish on the web. We
are building an intranet to organise the 'folklore' in my group. I am
teaching using computer-mediated communication, using web-delivered
visualisation and animation tools, and I develop content for the web-
delivery of chemical education. My wife uses the web to learn everything
about diapers for our daughter Kayla-Jade and then she uses the web to
order the best ones available anywhere in the US for the best price. I just
found out, via the web, that only United flies triple-7s to Frankfurt. What
can I say...
What do you mean by the folklore of your group?
I refer to the bits and pieces of knowledge that accumulate over the years
in a group which are often only transmitted from one student generation
to the next by word of mouth. This kind of knowledge is very important
and I am trying to keep a record of such things on our intranet. Logbooks
get lost, the intranet will always be there.
Why do you think the public fears science?
Well, it should be taken very seriously! The public is afraid and for
perfectly good reasons. The public (and that includes me) has been
screwed over and over by applications of science that turned out to be
harmful or downright devastating. The atmospheric tests of nuclear
devices in Nevada and the fall-out they produced all over the midwest.
The development of drugs that turned out to have devastating side
effects (too many to name even a short list). The excessive use of
pesticides and insecticides in the past and ongoing. Excessive usage of
chemicals in the household... As scientists, we need to do a much better
job at educating the public. And that means telling them the truth, the
whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Don't worry, the public can take it
and science will prosper.
What goals should chemists set themselves for the next few years?
It is one of my goals to make the best ferroelectric organic crystals I can
possibly make. As to other chemists, how should I know what their goals
What will chemistry achieve in the next ten years?
In research, chemistry will achieve more by 2008 than anybody could
possibly imagine in 1998. So, I will not state predictions. However, three
of the areas in which the most exciting breakthroughs are likely to occur
concern the developments of integrated chemical systems, the
understanding of molecular mechanisms of drug actions, and the
computation of large, chemically relevant, complex systems with
In the teaching of chemistry, I think there will be a paradigm shift away
from the synthesis and mechanisms based approach to an approach
that centres on structures and properties and embraces strong bonding
(ionic, covalent) and weak bonding (multipoles, H-bonding, van der
Waals) as equally important.
What invention would you like to wipe from history?
I do not want any censorship at the level of research and invention. I want
the moral and ethical discussions at the stage where society decides
how to use or not use the research insights and inventions. In that
context, I think I would be able to list a few inventions that would have
been better not having been employed. Weapons of mass destruction
are part of that list.