Getting Personal The Alchemist

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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.

Research Projects

  • Deamination chemistry and the alkylation and modification of DNA
  • Organic ferroelectric crystalline materials for nonlinear optics
  • Phosphorus analogues of diazonium ions: theory and experimental approach
  • Methods of topological electron and spin density analysis
  • Computer-mediated communication, collaborative learning and peer review in chemical education
Major life events:
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.

Personal description:
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 discovery.

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 though?
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 Freudenstadt.

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 lazy people.

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 should be?

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 chemical accuracy. 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?

Why none?
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.

David Bradley is a freelance science writer and editorial consultant based in Cambridge, England.