GERMANS SUCK!

His eyes went blank. He was in the same posture as when he seemed to be attentive.  Now, there was a sense of “lights on, no one’s home.” Yet, when I finished, he continued the conversation normally. I suspected this brilliant man’s mind was so far ahead, he had guessed what I was going to say or else my part of the conversation was so simple he could follow it with a fraction of his attention. Meanwhile, his busy mind was working on a significant research problem.

I related this incident to one of the graduate students. Ed said, “it happens to everyone. I keep thinking I’m going to say, ‘Germans suck’ and see what happens.” He never tried it. All of us had too much respect for the apparent part-time listener–Howard V. Malmstadt.

Dr. Malmstadt was the advisor for my senior project at the University of Illinois (UofI)–a requirement for a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry as certified by the American Chemical Society.  The time required and credits awarded comprised most of the senior year.  For all intents and purposes, I was a graduate student and a full-fledged member of “the Malmstadt Group.” 

Chemistry has several subfields and at the end of my junior year, I had to choose one.  It is not an exaggeration to say the difference between an inorganic chemist and an analytical chemist is as big as between a dermatologist and a cardiovascular surgeon.  Although I understood the theory and performed well on exams, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry were unappealing–too much mixing of messy chemicals. Besides, it was dangerous. One of the lab buildings at the UofI was named for a well-known chemist who had famously blown out one of the walls.

Physical Chemistry was simultaneously fascinating and too difficult.  I never regretted the time invested–including the every-Saturday morning 3–4-hour tutorials I needed to learn the material.  The familiarity with advanced mathematics and physics I acquired allowed me to comprehend the underpinnings of cosmology and enough details of atomic theory to understand the measurements I was making. Nonetheless, P-chem was not a possible career choice.  Now, only Analytical Chemistry remained.  Eventually, I came to understand that in the field of Analytical Chemistry, the UofI had no peer.

Before he left the UofI, Dr Malmstadt wrote ten books and published ~150 research papers.  Those numbers are impressive, but what he is known for is the invention of the field of Chemical Instrumentation.  He was the Bill Gates of this field.  This was the early 70s.  Chemical measurements were a variation on mixing chemicals and observing how deep was the color of the resulting solution.  One man pioneered the automation of chemical measurements and insisted that Analytical Chemistry students, yes chemists, take a class he devised called “Electronics for Scientists.”  Now, when you have blood drawn in the morning, and a call from your doctor with a list of results in the afternoon, if you trace the lineage of the instrument used for the measurements, you will find Dr Malmstadt.

Analytical Chemistry is about making better measurements, and more measurements faster.  Ultimately, I learned I had no aptitude for designing and building better instruments.  I liked interpreting measurements.  What intrigued me was the underlying physical characteristics of the substance being measured.  Nonetheless, my brief time working with Dr. Malmstadt had an enormous influence on the direction of my life.  I learned, for example, that in any field there are practitioners who can do things no one else can do–just because some say a technology or experiment cannot be performed at all or performed reliably, does not mean there are not some who can succeed at the task nearly every time.

Dr Malmstadt’s emphasis on communication excellence was another important lesson. His students constantly complained about what a task master he was regarding the quality of their written and oral presentations.   He insisted that the elegance of the presentation match the quality of the research.

My decision to leave the Midwest and attend the University of Arizona (UA) for graduate school was a result of meeting one of Dr Malmstadt’s graduates who was finishing his doctorate and had taken a position there.  The preparation I had working in “the Malmstadt Group,” led the UA to exempt me from most of the usual first-year graduate classes. I had to take the requisite number of units, but instead of taking graduate Analytical Chemistry classes with my peers, I took classes such as one in civil engineering on air pollution monitoring.  Those classes showed me how analytical chemistry produced important data.  I was able to design an interdisciplinary graduate program which was unheard of at the time.

That early start allowed me to ride the crest of the new field of Environmental Chemistry.  My training was unusual.  I had expertise in data interpretation and a solid understanding of how the measurements were made. This was the secret to my career.

Not only had I chosen Analytical Chemistry by process of elimination; I happened to work with Dr Malmstadt for the same reason.  One Analytical Chemistry professor I liked was leaving the university. Another was, perhaps, the world’s leading electrochemist. That field was not for me.  The theory required too much of the physical chemistry I struggled with and it seemed you spent hours setting up complicated and temperamental apparatus that usually failed. If it worked, you got one number.

Another choice was the only professor with whom I ever had a serious run-in.  Receiving a “B” in his laboratory class was one thing, but my lab mate and I received the same grades for each assignment. Yet, he was given an A for the class and I received a B.  Accordingly, I went to see the professor.  He was angry, but I persisted. I had a right to know why my grade was different.  Finally, he said he would change it to an A. He did, but we never spoke again.  I passed him in the halls almost daily for a year and he would not look me in the eye or greet me. 

That is how I chose Dr. Malmstadt; the only remaining analytical chemist in the department, the only one I did not know.  I had no idea of his prominence in the field.  I only knew he worked with big instruments that produced interesting data.  Working with him for nearly a year set up both my career path and where I have lived—but it almost did not happen.

My senior year had begun about three weeks previous.  I had transferred to the UofI in the middle of my sophomore year.  As a junior, I had lived in an apartment with my best friend, but he had married and transferred out-of-state. I had taken heavy class loads and worked at a shoe store on Friday nights and Saturdays.  I had not attempted a social life. I had no close friends.

My 21st birthday had just passed.  I did not receive one birthday wish or call. My present apartment-mate, whom I did not know well, did not know it was my birthday. I was depressed.  Worse yet, I did not know any girls or have any idea how I would meet any. (There had been an understandable family glitch and I had calls and cards from my immediate family a day late.)

Against all of this, I needed to initiate and commit to long hours performing independent research. I had little understanding of what analytical chemists did for a career. I could not see myself investing so many hours in a boring research project and then going to graduate school. I decided to quit.

The program I was in had already required so many extra classes that I could drop senior research and take a lesser chemistry degree. I decided I would go to law school.  Companies liked lawyers with science degrees.  My senior year would be easy. Maybe I could have a social life!  I could go to law school at the UofI and would not need to move for graduate school as chemistry required.

I obtained a drop slip and went to see Dr Malmstadt.  I do not recall whether I received the “blank-eyed stare,” while I explained why I was done with chemistry.  He responded that he knew a corporate lawyer who worked long hours for an enormous annual bonus based on his ability to continue to delay a judgement his company knew they would and should lose. The man earned a “lot of money,” Dr. Malmstadt related, but the work did not sound “interesting.”

Then he said the words that changed my life: “Before I sign the drop slip, why don’t you come in and spend an afternoon with me and we will check out a new instrument that arrived this week.  After that, see how you feel about things.” He explained that the new instrument allegedly could make measurements with a sensitivity greater than what was said possible in the textbook in a class I had finished the previous semester.

We picked an upcoming afternoon and when I arrived, he told his secretary he was not to be bothered. We spent the afternoon, both of us in lab coats, making up the solutions and testing the new instrument. It was so interesting, I decided to continue.  Dr Malmstadt suggested a senior project that was suitable for my skills and interests. I enjoyed the time immensely, and as I have related, the experience set up my eventual career path including where I would live.  Without the experience and the “jump-start” given me by Dr Malmstadt, everything would have been different.  Indeed, a week or so later I met my wife-to-be, and the rest is “history.”

There is one more thing.  Others told me later, and I saw it for myself that year: that was the only time anyone saw Dr Malmstadt wearing a lab coat and working with a student.  The idea of him carving out four to five hours to spend with one person was unheard of.  I was an undergrad. I was not going to complete any research that was publishable. Dr. Malmstadt had more than 10 graduate students in his group—all of them committed to obtaining their PhD, and responsible for thousands of dollars in grant money. Yet, it was me, the lowly undergrad, he did not know, for whom he took the time.  It was many years before I had the perspective to look back and realize how much that afternoon meant to my life.

I spent another 7 years with university research.  I knew many professors. I frequently heard: “teaching only hurts your career by taking time away from research.” Most, if not all, would have signed the drop slip, probably with relief to not have to manage an undergraduate project amidst their busy schedules. For my great fortune, the most famous and successful professor I ever knew is one who did not.

None of us really knows the effect of a small gesture.  I think this man did. His entire career of service to science and teaching reflected it.  Years later, when I understood how momentous was that one afternoon, it occurred to me that I ought to write Dr Malmstadt.  He had moved on and was president of a private university in Hawaii. I never did write that letter. I should have.

11 thoughts on “GERMANS SUCK!

  1. Quite a story. That person who had a similar impact on my career was you. I learned a lot from you in your roles as my contractor, then my supervisor and then my contractor again. That experience with you helped me gain self confidence in a job I probably wasn’t ready for. Thanks for all you did.

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    1. Dave, thanks for the compliment—really brightened my day. You were easy to have confidence in because you always wanted to do “the right thing.” I have always cherished our working relationship…and friendship.

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  2. Makes me think of the one teacher I had in journalism who inspired and lit a fire under me. Perhaps I should tell him before it’s too late. Thanks for this, Nic.

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  3. Wow! …an inspiring story that I did not know, and so well written, brought tears to my eyes! While I know there are tons of teachers that care SO much, class sizes do not encourage that personal connection 😦 All the way down to kindergarten, I would love to see class sizes much smaller… Thanks for writing/sharing!

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  4. A moving, thoughtful article that once again proves, “Teachers touch the future.”
    I am going to sit down right now and write a thank you letter to one of the most influential people in my life. Thanks for the push!
    Thanks for sharing the young Nic Korte with us. And thanks for the tutorial on all the types of chemistry! 😳🤔😊 I always learn something from your articles!

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  5. A moving, thoughtful article that once again proves, “Teachers touch the future.”
    I am going to sit down right now and write a thank you letter to one of the most influential people in my life. Thanks for the push!
    Thanks for sharing the young Nic Korte with us. And thanks for the tutorial on all the types of chemistry! 😳🤔😊 I always learn something from your articles!

    Like

  6. Dear Nic, This is a fine piece of writing. I think most of us have a Dr. Malmstadt figure in our lives who was very influential and toward whom we were not sufficiently appreciative. You made this coming-of-age story come alive. I checked Dr. M’s date of death and saw that you were too late to send that thank you note, but I feel sure he forgave you and was pleased with your success.

    I am more than half-way through Ten Jungle Days. I bought it months ago but only started it recently. It is very reminiscent of many experiences I have had in CR and in Ecuador as well. Harry and I met the same Angel Paz and saw a number of Antpittas including the jocotoco, for which we waited a long time.

    And as one who went to Rara Avis briefly in 1987 with Amos when he was trying to get people to symbolically buy and support pieces of the property, I found it very exotic in many ways, including having a scare with an awful intestinal bug picked up there. I’m still glad I had the experience of seeing the forest and my first Great Currasow. Knowing Amos was inspiring; thank goodness there were people like him with vision and determination to save large tracts of forest. Your story is very compelling and I’m really enjoying the forest dramas and personal asides.

    Harry and I are going to CR for 3 weeks on Thursday. We will be staying in our former home at Finca Cantaros, as Lilly Briggs and her fiance are living now in Kata and Pepe’s former home, as Lilly’s parents bought Casa Botanica. Lilly is expecting David Rodriguez’ child in September. David was a birding guide and biologist at Monteverde, and that’s where they met. You may already know all this about Lilly.

    Our former property is now 100% dedicated to reforestation, restoration, research and env. ed. The gardens are no longer there; it will be interesting to see everything grown over for the primary sake of wildlife and not for natural history visitors. I totally support what Lilly is doing. I had needed the income from visitors to the store and finca to support the full-time groundsman; she doesn’t.

    After two weeks in San Vito we are going with new friends from Santa Fe to La Cusinga Lodge in Uvita, Savegre Mt. Lodge, and Arenal Observatory Lodge.

    I hope you are starting to get out and have fun, too!

    All best wishes and thanks for writing this fine book, Gail

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