Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why was UM-Dearborn important to me?

Why was UM-Dearborn important to me? My happy memories of campus are many and varied, from hanging out at the ROC on a Friday night, to wandering the Fairlane Estate to clear my mind, to standing in line in the COB to fill out paper registration forms, to the occasional fancy lunch in the Pool, to some shenanigans in the CAB I’m wiser not to share. If I had to point to the campus characteristic that mattered the most, though, it would be the opportunity for independent intellectual growth.

I came to campus intending to major in chemistry with an ambition to ultimately pursue a Ph.D. Second semester general chemistry with Dr. Potts solidified that goal. He was an entertaining, engaging, and challenging teacher, and by the end of the semester I decided I had to do research with him. I still remember fondly the first meeting in his office, in the spring of 1983. Dr. Potts welcomed me into his laboratory, explained the problem in gold chemistry he was trying to tackle, and gave me the freedom to choose my own directions to solve it. There were many, many stumbles along the way, but Dr. Potts was always patient, encouraging, willing to allow me to try new things, and generous with his time in teaching me new techniques. He introduced me to the literature and to the professional scientific community of chemistry. He taught me how to blow glass (and let me learn the hard way the difference between hot and cool glass). Along with a couple of my classmates, he led me to Chicago in the spring of 1986 for my first American Chemical Society national meeting, an overwhelming and thrilling experience. Hard to believe that 30 years hence, those semi-annual meetings remain a fixture of my professional life.

While Dr. Potts is the singular figure in my Dearborn experience, he is by no means the only one to help my journey of growth. As my laboratory skills improved (slowly), I managed to secure a job doing preparative work for the general chemistry laboratories, and that on-campus job both brought some much needed income and an excuse to spend even more time around the labs. Linda Grimm and Bob Quattro ran those laboratories like a top and were great bosses and mentors. My other chemistry professors---Otto, Donahue, Decamp, Bazzi, Tai, …---drilled all aspects of chemistry into me and prepared me well for the rigors of graduate study. Among my many other professors, I have to single out Prof. Brown (Math) and Prof. Prentis (Physics), whose elegant presentation of difficult topics continue to inspire both my own research and my teaching style. And of course I cannot fail to mention the many, many UM-Dearborn friends who made the days and the nights so much fun.

After receiving my Ph.D. from Ohio State in 1991, I returned to the Dearborn area for a position in the Ford Research Laboratory. I soon came to miss the academic life, and in a display of shockingly poor judgment, the Natural Sciences department welcomed me back to teach General Chemistry in the evenings. Imagine my excitement to be back to my old stomping grounds, but on the other side of the desk! I soon discovered the joy of working with students, hearing their stories, helping them learn and grow, and watching them master new material. During the day I worked with a world-class group of Ford scientists and engineers, building my research portfolio, and in the evenings I honed my teaching skills. That combination of experiences put me in the position to return to the academy full-time in 2004. Years at Ford made this chemist look like a chemical engineer, and now I teach and do research at the boundary of of two in my faculty position at the University of Notre Dame.

I have had many good breaks and great mentors along the way. But the people and the environment at UM-Dearborn gave me the solid foundation to build on.

Written by: William Schneider