Going with the Flow
Sitting Down With... Gary Christian, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Washington, USA.
Who sparked your interest in science?
GC: Teachers make a big difference in your life. I had a tremendous science teacher, who taught me general science, biology, physics, and chemistry. He was also my track coach and a real character. We remained friends for years, but sadly he died a couple of years ago (he was in his nineties). Initially, I wanted to be a high school teacher to emulate him. So I went to college at the University of Oregon and wound up majoring in chemistry. I knew that eventually, as a high school teacher I’d need a Master’s degree, and decided I wanted to get it in chemistry, so I applied to the University of Maryland. It felt a long way from home – especially as I’d never been out of my state!
But you never made it back to high school teaching?
Again, my instructor, Bill Purdy had a great influence on me. I wound up doing research for him, and got my masters, but he talked me into continuing on. He was the kind of guy who just let you loose. I wrote my own papers and worked in the lab on my own “creations” (initially, in electrochemistry). He was also a consultant at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington DC and found me a job there. I got my PhD and continued working at Walter Reed for two more years or so, taking leave to go and teach Bill’s classes at Maryland while he was on sabbatical. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to take an academic path – I didn’t know what real chemists actually did(!) – and I ended up at the University of Kentucky, where I stayed for five years. But when you’re young and impatient, and they’re not promoting you fast enough, you start to look around...
So you moved again?
Right. I have a twin brother who graduated from the University of Washington, and his professor hired me as a full professor in 1972. Although I’d focused on electrochemistry I got into atomic absorption spectroscopy and, with a friend of mine (Fred Feldman, who also worked with Bill Purdy and at Walter Reed), wrote one of the first books on the subject for biological and agricultural applications. Eventually, I got into flow injection analysis. I was able to recruit Jaromir (Jarda) Ruzicka to the University of Washington, and we had a successful collaboration for many years. I eventually wound up in administration, which was unexpected. I was appointed Divisional Dean of Sciences and had 15 departments to look after, including chemistry. At first, I wondered what I’d got myself into, but I enjoyed it – for nine years.
Did you miss research or teaching?
I kept the research going for a while, but it had to stop. And I really missed teaching. I actually came back to teaching for a couple of years before retiring. I was a little bit nervous because I hadn’t taught for almost a decade, but I got the best ratings I’d ever had. A student from the very last class I taught invited me to a luncheon for “favorite professors” – that was a nice way to end my career.
Could you share some highlights of your career?
A couple of things happened that kind of prodded me on. One year, I was elected Chairman of the analytical division of the ACS and I got the award for excellence in teaching. I eventually got the Fisher Award in Analytical Chemistry as well. Such achievements make you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. It’s not the most important part of your career, of course, but it’s nice to have the recognition – and to know that you’ve made an impact. I also made an interesting discovery or two...
How did you get involved with the Talanta journal?
Another unexpected turn! Jim Winefordner had been the chair of the editorial board for years and wanted me appointed. Back in those days, we used paper manuscripts, so things moved a little more slowly. Today, although it’s faster in some ways, it’s also easier to cut and paste, self-plagiarize, even plagiarize... I do have a talk I give on ethics of scientific writing (http://tas.txp.to/0716/garyonethics)
There are more journals and papers than ever before – are they of quality?
It’s a problem. Talanta’s impact factor has really gone up in recent years, and that attracts more papers. That’s good, but I think it’s typical that with most top-notch journals the rejection rate is pretty high – I think ours is 75 percent or so, depending on the area. I personally reject a fair number without review for a number of reasons; I might guide the author to a more appropriate journal or it may not have anything to do with analytical chemistry at all! It takes more of my time, of course, but saves reviewer time.
What other big changes have you seen throughout your career?
I’ve noticed that buzzwords come and go. At one point, every paper had “nano-something” – in my day, they were simply colloids... In fact, it’s not often that entirely new things come along, like AAS or flow injection coming along and changing automation. Most changes are incremental. Bio applications are big these days, and analytical chemistry is an important part of that; in fact, a lot of chemistry departments are almost becoming biology departments. I was looking at the young, energetic, bright faculty we’ve recently hired, and almost all of them are into bio-something: looking at single cells, looking at single molecules, chemistry at the nanometer scale, optical methods and imaging. A lot of the work nowadays is focused on problem solving, not generating techniques just to be techniques. A lot of people push the sensitivity issue when they submit a paper: “we can measure 10 picograms per liter” then apply it to a pharmaceutical drug at 10 percent! More often, what you’re interested in is selectivity and robustness, maybe doing multi-component measurements or dealing with complex mixtures.
What makes a good teacher?
Being a friend, being accessible, and trying to teach students to be creative and independent. In fact, I’ve had students tell me the best thing they learnt from me was how to communicate and write – which is almost more important than the science itself in some ways. No matter what job you get, you need to communicate. I always made my students write their own papers, so that they could learn through several iterations ¬– that’s just how I learnt. I’ve remained friends with many of my students. And some have gone on to fantastic things; for example, Isiah Warner. He’s an African-American who went to Southern University as an undergraduate in Baton Rouge. At the time, he wasn’t allowed to go to Louisiana State University because he was black ¬– but now he’s Vice President there. Over the years, I’ve learnt that students are the ones who “make” your career, more than anything else.
What’s your best advice?
I was at the Canadian Chemical Conference a few years ago, giving a lecture, and students came up to ask advice from the professors. I said something along the lines of: “Life will take you where you do not expect. Take advantage of what you have when you have it.” I gave three examples in my case: i) I never thought I’d become a college professor – that happened by accident, as I wanted to be a high school teacher; ii) I never thought I’d become Dean; and iii) I never thought I’d become a father again at the age of 55 – my wife, Sue, and I ended up raising two wonderful granddaughters, ages 2 and 5. In short, life goes where you don’t anticipate – you have to enjoy what it brings.
Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Washington, USA.