The Chemistry experience at Caltech

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The Chemistry experience at Caltech

I have told excerpts of this story many times, but I thought I would get it in writing and assemble my experiences at Caltech in one story. It is now about 50 years later, and maybe somebody may learn something from this discussion. Most of the professors mentioned (except for the first year) are still at Caltech. As always, tenure is based on bringing in research dollars, not on treatment of students. It should be noted that grades, which seem vitally important while you are in school, become irrelevant once you go to graduate school.

The First Year - Inorganic Chemistry

The class was mostly taught by Professor Jurg Waser with help from William Schaefer (Bill).. The lab was memorable for endless titrations and analytical work. I was very careful about adding my drops and got consistent results. In some cases, I looked at the samples and attempted to determine what the results were supposed to be. My experiments were carefully done. I really tried to get a perfect score on all the exams.

After the class was completed, I was invited to join a research group for the summer doing research with Linus Pauling about the effect of anesthetics on brine shrimp. Brine shrimp were numerous, did not swim toward light when asleep, and did swim to light when awake. After treatment, if they survived, they would swim towards light. We wanted a small dose to put them to sleep, and wanted all the shrimp to recover after the experiment. Since there were a lot of them, the statistics were reasonable. The research found that the chloro-fluorothanes performed best. I later was subjected to one of those anesthetics for a colonoscopy.
Summer research with the Linus Pauling group was great experience in devising an experiment and carrying it out with statistical considerations. The experience was not called what it later became at the time, but it was the precursor to the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) that is now common at Caltech. The money received paid for my next years room and board and was quite financially helpful. Nowadays, college costs have escalated, so earning a substantial portion with a summer research job is no longer feasible.

The Second Year – Organic Chemistry

The professor for the course was John D. Roberts (Jack). He was working with Marjorie Caserio on a new book about introductory Organic Chemistry. I really liked his presentation and helped out with some of the notes by finding a few errors. David Shochat found more errors than I did. The book was published at the end of that year and was quite impressive. After the class, Professor Roberts offered me the opportunity to do research in his laboratory. I worked on the NMR proton shift of the response of Maleic Anhydride with various solvents. I adventured into the stock room to find various reagents there to mix (without causing a chemical reaction) and take spectra. A few years later, I was the sample myself in a giant tube as Magnetic Resonance was used to look at some of my soft tissue. I thought Jack deserved to win the Nobel prize for his study of Hydrogen and Carbon-13 images. Fifty years later, I talked to him informally at Caltech. He remembered both me and the research that I had done and published with his group. He was still working on publications about his research. He said that his time for Nobel consideration had come and gone.

The Third Year – Analytical/Physical Chemistry

The first quarter was Analytical Chemistry taught by Professor Fred Anson, a former Caltech undergraduate student who played basketball. For some reason, I did not attend the lab work regularly at the beginning and received a mid-semester “blue slip” indicating that I was in danger of failing the class. OOPS, I guess I should have completed and turned in more of the lab assignments. I really got busy in the lab and completed all the assignments successfully. I then aced the final and received an A for the course. Professor Anson said that was the first time he had given a blue slip to someone and then had to give an A in the class. He subsequently offered me a summer research position in his group. His group was quite dynamic and interesting to work with. I subsequently wrote a paper for one of his students which was published.

Also in that quarter was a mandatory class for Chemistry majors called Oral Presentation. That class involved preparing several presentations and giving them to the class. One of the best students from Organic Chemistry, David Shochat, was in the class. Just before he was to give his first presentation, he dropped out of school (FEAR!). He subsequently went to UCLA, majored in math and later received a PhD in math. He gave good presentations both in school and on the job. I guess he did not need to take the class after all.

The next quarter was CH26A, Physical Chemistry Lab with Sunney Chan. My lab partner was Jared Austin, who is a very good chemist. We did a great job of completing the lab work on time, getting excellent results, and turning in the assignments. Each of us wrote up the labs separately but compared answers at the end which were the same. I wrote up the labs with minimum explanations and skipped steps in the mathematics since the steps were obvious anyway. Jared had more detailed explanations and did not skip any steps in the math processing to get results. Professor Chan accused me of cheating and copying Jared results. Jared correctly denied the accusation and defended me as a good lab partner. Jared got an A in the course. Professor Chan still thought I had copied his work (and said he wanted to give me an F in the class, but could not prove copying results) but he gave me a D in the class because he thought Jared's write-up displayed more understanding. For whatever reasons, neither Jared Austin nor Louis Newman have contributed to the Alumni Fund. I then dropped the class for the next quarter hoping that the professor would change for the next year.

Instead, I took a graduate class in Inorganic Chemistry taught by visiting Professor Harry Gray from Columbia University. Harry was an enthusiastic teacher and I was excited by the ideas and material that he presented. I suppose the people in the class impressed him with their enthusiasm and ability.
The Fourth Year – Political Chemistry

This year I decided to take Chem 125A which was a graduate level course in Physical Chemistry taught by Aron Kuppermann. The course was somewhat interesting with very difficult homework assignments. The announced grade distribution was 10% homework, 40% midterm and 50% final. The graduate students in the class all pooled their efforts on the homework assignments and did a pretty good job of getting them all correct. Their homework scores were between 90 to 100 for the course. I scored a 7 out of 100 since I did not turn in many of the assignments. Dr. Kuppermann was called away and was unable to give a midterm. I did well on the final, scoring an 83 for the third highest grade in the class. When I attempted to register for Chem 125B for the next semester, I was denied and told to talk to Dr. Kuppermann.

I went to see him and found that my grade was an F for the course, so I was not allowed to register. Since the graduate students had done so poorly on the final, he felt obligated to improve their grades, so he weighted the homework at 50% and the final at 50%. Hence, my class score was (83 + 7)/2 = 45 for the lowest score in the class and a clear F. The grade system established after the final was something like: 80-100=A, 70-79=B. 60-69=C. 50-59=D. However, he said that my final exam score showed that I understood the material so I would be allowed to take the next quarter of the class. When I protested to the administration about the altered grading system, I was told that the professor could establish any grading system desired. The next semester, I joined the graduate student homework group, but ended up with a C in the class since homework was back to 10% of the grade but I did less well on the exams. My first date was a helpful person from that group.

The last quarter before graduation, I had to take CH26B, the second semester of the Physical Chemistry lab class. Contrary to my hopes, Sunney Chan was still the instructor for the class. I warned my new lab partner, Gary Schnuelle, that grades were not based on results, but on length of the lab write-up description. I made sure to put in all the math steps along with an explanation of what the experiment was about (mostly taken from the textbook). I actually got a B in the class along with a compliment from Dr. Chan on my improved style and understanding. Gary had the same lab results but did not have such lengthy descriptions. He received a poor grade. He subsequently became dissatisfied with his quality of life. I was horrified when, for the next year, Dr. Chan was named Master of Student Houses, which is the main interface from the Caltech faculty to the students. Apparently, he volunteered for the position, stating he wanted to get to know the students better.

During the year, I decided that I wanted to be a graduate student for Harry Gray at Columbia University in New York City. I wrote to him, and received a letter back saying that I did not have to come to him, he was coming to me, and would be a Professor at Caltech the next year. I would be welcome as a graduate student working for him. I said that I had already taken most of the graduate courses here and besides I wanted to go somewhere where there were more women. Harry suggested Northwestern University, where he had been a graduate student. He said that they would treat me nicely. I also knew Professors Joe Lambert and Brian Hoffman from associating with them at Caltech. I went to graduate school there and Harry was right. They did treat me nicely in every respect; I also graduated with a PhD in four years.

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