Title: Professor at the University of Texas
Now resides in: Odessa, Texas
Degree: 1967, B.S. Chemistry
Further education: 1969, M.S. Chemistry, 1973, PhD., Organic Chemistry, Louisiana State University
How I got to Tech: I wanted to be an astronaut and Tech was not only a technical institution, but it also had a U.S. Air Force ROTC program. I eventually washed out and wound up in chemistry. Chemistry was my hobby; as a kid, I used to blow things up!
What I do now: I am the Ellen and Bill Noel Distinguished Professor for Energy Research and the Chemistry Chair at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. I have received several patents - and have several pending patents - for my research in biofuels. In April, I was awarded the Hearst Energy Award for Technology. I was also a finalist for the President's Research Award at UTPB.
How I'd explain my research to non-chemists: We're converting biomass into liquid fuels, mainly through hydrocarbons. Nobody else is doing this research right now; other research has focused on making ethanol out of biomass and using up our food chain. But our research uses the materials you can't digest as food.
Why I became interested in biofuels: I started this research in 1978, while I was working on cancer research at Purdue University. At this time, we were in the midst of an oil crisis. I was lecturing to my organic chemistry class in the spring and challenged my students with a problem. The problem was, that, when making ethanol, you're throwing one third of your carbons away as carbon dioxide. I said, ‘What some of you bright chemists ought to do is keep those six carbons together and remove the oxygen. Instead of having a solid, you'll have a liquid, which would be called hexane.' Of course none of the students picked up the challenge. As I was walking down the hall I thought, ‘That was a good idea. I wonder if anyone has ever done that before?' At the time I was working on anti-cancer drugs. My career totally changed in terms of research directions.
On the most rewarding aspect of teaching: The students. I knew I wanted to go into teaching when I was a graduate teaching assistant at Tech. I found that, in teaching some of the laboratories, I got enjoyment out of students seeing the proverbial light and understanding the tasks and concepts.
My toughest professional challenge: There are a number of professional challenges. Some are introducing new programs to the university. Sometimes it's writing good research grants to compete for millions of dollars. They're all just different flavors.
What I love about my job: It's not the pay. It's the enjoyment of teaching students and seeing new understandings.
Memories of Tech: One thing I really like about north Louisiana, and particularly the Ruston area, is the piney woods. Out here in the desert, we don't have anything like that!