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Voice of a Chemistry Alumnus: Robin Polt

A Chemistry Degree at IUPUI 36 Years Out

By: Robin Polt, BS Chemistry 1981

Thirty nine years ago, still on active duty stationed at Fort Harrison, I enrolled in Will Fife's evening organic chemistry class on the 38th Street campus, with the idea I would transfer any credit to Purdue or another institution upon discharge from the Army.  I enjoyed his class, and asked him if he had any research positions available.  He told me that there was a "struggling young Assistant Professor" who could use my help, and sent me to see Marty O'Donnell.  I was met with a guy with a mustache and a bandaged hand.  Professor O'Donnell told me that he had jammed a glass tube into his hand whilst trying to insert it into a rubber stopper.  He was happy to put me to work in his lab and I was happy to work in his lab. 

The situation in Marty's lab was mixed, at best.  It was tough working for an (unfunded) Assistant Professor at IUPUI in those days - we had to steal paper towels from the bathroom, and rinse out our "disposable" pipettes so that they could be reused.  We even recycled acetone.  But I became part of the "struggle," and the situation seemed much better than the typical graduate student at a "major research university." I had "my own" 90 MHz NMR machine and "my own" desk, and "my own" TA assignment at the 7:00--10:00 pm night lab.  Soon after I abandoned my plans to leave IUPUI, and after getting a few credits in the evening courses, and enrolled full time as a Chemistry student.  I even bought a boarded-up house on Fairfield Ave right across the street.  In those days, you could buy a house in that neighborhood for less than $10,000.  With my $450 per month GI Bill payments I could make house payments and support my wife and daughter.  Tuition was $275 per semester.

Initially, I thought I would earn a BS in Chemistry and get a job at Eli Lilly or perhaps Dow, but soon I realized that to do "fun chemistry" I would need to earn a Ph.D. -  a degree that was not offered at IUPUI at the time.  Marty's Schiff base chemistry was working far better than anyone had anticipated, and with the papers we published, I was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which allowed me to continue my education in NYC at Columbia University under the tutelage of the late Gilbert Stork.  There I learned that I needed to go into academia if I wanted to do "my own" fun chemistry.  After five years at Columbia, and a few more published papers, I did a postdoctoral study in Zurich, Switzerland under the direction of Dieter Seebach before accepting a position at the University of Arizona in 1988. 

Since then the chemistry techniques I learned at IUPUI have served me and my students well, and this month my 20th Ph.D. student will take his degree.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot - the struggle was successful and Marty got tenure!