Monday, January 19, 2009

Hero Worship Part Deux

I have been meaning to blog my Hero Worship Part 2 post longer than I even had Part 1 in my brain. That would make this one really Part 1 and the other really Part 2... but whatever. Anyways, time to sit down and write it out has not been on my side.

A few weeks ago, V sent me a notice that a professor from my alma mater would be giving a presentation here at work. I was thrilled to see that it was not only one of my former professors at the university, but one of my heroes, Dr. L.

He was my physical chemistry professor and saved me from a mid-college-career major change. I had struggled through Organic Chemistry and was ready to ditch chemistry, but didn't know for what yet. In my floundering, I decided to remain in chemistry until I could figure it all out.

I knew from day one that we were lucky to have him for a professor. He was an easy going, friendly man who smiled a lot, waved his hands a lot (both literally and figuratively) and was in a position to make the "choice" to teach or not. Not many professors are in this position at a University and from my first visit to his office I suspected he was someone who had done a lot in his career thus far since his office was on the top floor of the JILA tower with amazing views of Boulder. Oh and he had a secretary. No professors I knew had their own secretary.

He told me early on that chemistry was taught in the wrong order. It is more logical to teach Physical Chemistry after General Chemistry and before Organic Chemistry. However, that would make a chemistry major a year longer because of the Calculus requirements to take PChem. This gave me a little comfort that it wasn't just me that struggled for more understanding of the fundamentals. He told me a number of times that I just needed to accept some hand waving and quit looking for the deep reasons behind it all... for now.

I fell in love with my major again after learning Physical Chem from him. I graduated and after a two year sabbatical made my way to grad school.

About mid-way through my stint in grad school, my hero professor was awarded an honor from my section's ACS meeting and I went to hear his talk and have dinner with him. His seminar was wonderful, just as I had remembered him speak from 6 years prior and he even swore up and down he remembered me. He even remembered AB (who then kicked himself for not attending the talk and dinner). (AB and I first met in Physical Chemistry - of course at that point I was dating another guy.)

I arrived at his recent seminar about 10 minutes early on purpose. I walked in to the empty auditorium with just a few scientists standing around. I walked up to the front of the auditorium and introduced myself. He still swore he remembered me from his class and from my time at UNR. I was initially inclined to not believe him - how could he possibly remember me - nobody remembers me!! But then again, the guy is an amazing genius - maybe he does remember me, I thought to myself. We talked a touch about my research and then I made my way to an edge seat for his seminar. A few people I knew came in - were surprised to see me there (I am applied scientist, not a fundamental scientist, I don't often get time for the folly of seminars... kidding, our speakers just tend to be of a different flavor I suppose).

I knew they were wondering what I was doing there and I happily announced that he was my former professor. I immediately became the subject of a few minutes of murmuring around me.

20 minutes later was when I started calling into question the possibility of him really remembering me, along with being happy that I selected an edge seat.

It saddened me to see his seminar wasn't animated like our lectures used to be, that certain slides he flipped to and had no idea what they were, so he would flip to the next and look for something familiar. He was always a fast talker, but even that is gone. When the seminar was an hour and 15 minutes in I had to make the decision to get up and leave since I had work to do.

I was reminded that he is well into his 70's. Absolutely - he was no spring chicken when he was my professor in 1992-93.

Still he remains my hero.

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