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Career tip: What Buck Rogers taught me April 2, 2011

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.
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What Buck Rogers taught me

My research advisor was a very established and well-known analytical chemist by the time I entered his group 35 years ago. His former students containing many other accomplished analytical chemists, Dave Hercules, Ron Majors, Earl Wehry, Brian Bidlingmeyer, Joseph Glajch, Matthew Klee, Neil Danielson, and so on. So Buck Rogers, known by that nickname from his youth in the 1920s and 1930s, had a lot of experience. Besides the emphasis on chemistry from his training in the late 30s and early 40s, which most of us undervalued because we were in the new era of instrumentation-dominated analysis. But more importantly he taught me a lot about the mental and other non-science aspects of doing research.

Buck always emphasized that you needed to continue learning and doing new things, working in new areas. His career encompassed phases in wet chemistry, electrochemistry, spectroscopy, chromatography, and instrumentation. There were always new challenges and fresh ground to plow. Innovating became a core part because everything was always new. But you had to keep up and keep eyes open for forays into new topics. That is why I got into HPLC, fluorescence, and PAHs – new areas that had a lot of new work to b done.

Another area that Dr. Rogers also taught me is that you are never at the pinnacle, the number one person. There is no number-one person in scientific work. There is such diversity of work and dynamics in it that you can be in a top-level slice that excludes expertise in anything outside of your area. This striving to stay good, yet never attaining a goal for it might have arisen from Buck Roger’s other youthful pastime of the long jump (or as it was known then as the running broad jump). Buck was very, very good. He placed second in the USA in that track event one year. But his main competitor was none other than Jesse Owens. Buck probably knew and accepted the fact that on his best day, he would still have to have Jesse Owens have a very bad day or foot fault on every jump. So Buck competed against himself, striving to jump as perfectly as he could.

For being an upper-crust Connecticut Yankee, Buck was aware of the value of people even if they were diverse. He valued talents and capabilities. Our research group was a mix not often seen for its time, women, African-Americans, foreign students and post-docs epitomized by there being both an Afrikaans South African and a Zulu (exiled) South African at different times.

 Some things were not consciously taught, but I learned them from that time. There are differences in world-views. One student was so overly meticulous that Buck gave him a funded-deadline for his dissertation, no more experiments or data points, just writing before this date or no more support. Another was a narrow-focus thinker and clashed over Buck’s more global way of thinking. On the other hand, another student was too global and thought in fast brush-stroke Impressionism, a series of quick-and dirty studies. Buck needed somewhat more fleshing out. In each of these, I learned that even when wrong, the boss always wins any battle.

Buck indirectly also taught me about scientific ethics. Discussions among peers at meetings were conducted by “gentlemen’s agreements” not to divulge unpublished work. Even a worse offense was to steal another’s ideas and pursue them outside of an agreed-upon collaboration. Once at a Pittsburgh Conference, he warned me against describing any research plans with a certain very well know analytical chemist because this man was not above stealing ideas scooping the originator.

His intentions might not have been to emphasize these aspects as much as my fertile personality made them, but they did shape how I did science and looked at scientists.

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