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!