How I got here … and where I am going

I was born in Los Angeles in 1955 and grew up in North Hollywood, an outer suburb. When I was young, I was interested in physics, astronomy, ham radio, and computers. By the time I entered Caltech in 1972, I hoped to make my mark in physics or astronomy (somehow computer science never entered my head). A few very difficult weeks in freshman physics managed to persuade me that my academic future lay elsewhere and by year’s end I was a chemistry major.

I received my BS in chemistry from Caltech in 1976 and then my PhD in organometallic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981. My research directors were, respectively, a brand new assistant professor Peter Dervan at Caltech and professor Charles Casey at Wisconsin. Both of these chemists attracted scores of bright, energetic young people to their labs and it was my good fortune to spend time with many of them. Looking back on this period, my advice is whatever you do in life, look for good people to do it with.

PhD in hand, I entered my ‘itinerant’ phase working as a postdoctoral researcher with the late Earl Muetterties (1927-84) at the University of California-Berkeley (81-82); as a postdoctoral researcher with Dan Meyerstein at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel (82-83); as a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Tel Aviv in Tel Aviv, Israel (83-85); and as a visiting scientist at the IBM research laboratory in San Jose, California (84-85).

I finally entered my ‘career’ phase in 1985 when I became an assistant professor in chemistry at Pomona College in Claremont, California. This was my first real “teaching” job and I stayed in Claremont for four years before moving to Portland and Reed. Although the Pomona stint was brief, it proved to be pivotal in several respects because it was during this period that I teamed up with the late Corwin Hansch (1918-2011), Warren Hehre, and Gwen (Raine) Shusterman.

Corwin’s contribution was to get me interested in QSAR, especially in its applications to predictive toxicology, and to encourage me to leave organometallics and become a ‘professional’ computational chemist. My collaborations with Corwin in the 1990’s were probably the most productive research period in my life (see Publications). Certainly they were the most fun. Corwin’s enthusiasm was unsurpassed.

Believing that I needed considerably more computational experience if anyone was ever going to take me seriously, I took a one-semester sabbatical from Pomona in 1989 to visit the lab of Warren Hehre at UC Irvine. Hehre was in the process of starting Wavefunction, Inc. I could never have predicted it at the time, but this collaboration would eventually redirect my entire career and life.

I spent most of my time at Irvine learning to do ab initio calculations of electronic structure. Although chemists had been developing computer programs for this purpose for two decades and more, the calculations were still considered cutting-edge experiments that only highly trained experts could attempt and interpret. This view was reinforced by the fact that every “computational” lab sported its own super-expensive supercomputer and the Hehre lab was no exception.

What I and Hehre (and everyone other computational chemist) utterly failed to anticipate was the amazing increase in computer power that would occur over the next decade. By the late 1990’s, undergraduate students could perform the same calculations that I had been doing on their personal laptops. Moreover, Wavefunction’s powerful, user-friendly software, Spartan, made it possible to set up and complete a modeling calculation in just a few minutes. Yes, it still takes years of study to become a PhD-grade computational “expert,” but an intro chemistry student can now learn to build and use ab initio models in just a few minutes.

These developments led to several collaborations with Hehre/Wavefunction directed at chemical education. The projects included the publication of several books of computational “experiments” targeted at students and other non-experts, the development of modeling materials for several popular organic chemistry textbooks (McMurry’s “Organic Chemistry 5/e”, and Carey’s “Organic Chemistry 4/e”), and, in 2012, the development of a new modeling program for the iPad computer: iSpartan. My work with Hehre and Hansch also led to my election in 2011 as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The award cited my work “introducing computational chemistry into undergraduate organic chemistry courses and for the use of quantum chemical calculations for quantitative structure activity relationships.”

It was also during my 1989 sabbatical that I met Gwen Raine, another visitor in Hehre’s lab. Gwen Raine became Gwen Shusterman in 1990 and a tenured professor in the chemistry department at Portland State University in 1998. Over the years we have raised two daughters, Kristen and Alexis, a dog, and several cats, written an article together (see Publications), and paddled a kayak that goes in circles whenever we try to ride in it together.

Gwen and I moved to Portland, Oregon in 1989, and I have been teaching organic chemistry at Reed College ever since. I am currently working on the following challenges:

  • promoting a scholar-friendly (i.e., caring, supportive, and sustainable) work ethic for the Reed community. This includes helping colleagues and students develop work habits that facilitate hard work and encourage high expectations, while simultaneously avoiding habits that promote personal isolation, feelings of insecurity, high stress, and burn out
  • persuading chemistry teachers and students that models and instruction were made for each other
  • helping design/write software, experiments, books, web pages, etc., that demonstrate the usefulness of models as “thinking tools” for “non-expert” chemists
  • developing undergraduate courses in computational chemistry and green (sustainable) chemistry
  • developing new course materials that rely on student-centered teaching strategies, including mastery methods (Keller Plan) and process-oriented guided-inquiry learning (POGIL)

When I can find the time, I practice Tai Chi, play petanque and bocce, bike, sing, garden, read, watch soccer (go Barca), and practice meditation at the Zen Center of Portland. Although I own a large number of computing devices, I try to avoid devices and activities that try to steal my attention rather than being part of what is going on around me.

Please stop by my office if you have a question, would like a cup of tea, or just want a quiet place to sit.

(last updated 8/12)