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USF Chemistry Anecdotes: "Chemistry Ana"


At the suggestion of Dr. Mike Zaworotko, faculty members and former faculty members were asked to submit an anecdote about an aspect of their time in the Department. There follows the listing of those anecdotes.

Jack E. Fernandez, Ph.D. Charter Faculty Member, Professor Emeritus, Tampa (Interview by Lynn Rothman, USF Magazine Editor, published summer, 1995,

"the most exciting thing about [USF] was that it was the most intellectually charged atmosphere I'd ever been in The 100 combined faculty and administrators were all young ---in their 20s and 30sand faculty from all disciplines operated out of the same building, eating lunch together at the top of the SVC, attending each other's seminars and engaging in lively cross-disciplinary dialogues"

Michael Barfield, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry, University of Arizona , USF Faculty member, 1963-65. January 16, 2003

Dr. Barfield sent a copy of his appointment offer from Dr.Ashford (Director, Natural Sciences Division) that gives an insight into the academic schedule at the time.

" I am happy to nominate you to the president for appointment as Assistant Professor of Chemistry for the coming ten month academic year at a salary of [.] payable in ten monthly installments. As you know, this involves teaching two and one-half trimesters in the academic year. All appointments effective September 1, carry employment through April 30 (trimesters one and two) unless otherwise specified. The additional two months employment for ten month appointees may be either for either trimester IIIa and IIIb. Each faculty member will be notified in writing by the Division of Personnel Services no later than January 15 of each year regarding that portion of the third trimester for which employment is stipulated."

[Note by DFM: In the spring of 1965, I was notified orally by the Department Chairman the day before the start of Trimester IIIa that I would be teaching the next day.]

Eric Wickstrom, Ph.D., Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, Laboratory of Nucleic Acid therapeutics, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, USF Faculty member 1982-92,. January 29, 2003.

"When I joined the Department after the sudden demise of Southern Biotech, Inc., I was doing "stone soup" research on ribosomal RNA structure while rebuilding my lab. My colleagues helped generously with spare reagents and supplies, making it possible for me to publish two papers within a year. Helping and supporting each other is a hallmark of this department."

Stewart W. Schneller, Ph.D., Dean, College of Science and Mathematics, Auburn University, USF Faculty member, 1971-94; February 12, 2003

"One of my responsibilities when joining the chemistry department faculty at USF in 1971 was to teach sophomore organic chemistry. Many stories from that experience come to mind but, from the early days, three stand out:

  • Excited by my faculty appointment, I asked Cal Maybury, departmental chair at the time, if I could go into the lecture hall a few days before my first term began. I proudly and confidently walked around at the front of the 200-seat, empty auditorium. Then, on the first day of classes, I went to the same room and all seats were filled with students all looking at me. I was shocked! I am not sure how long it took for me to be able to say anything.
  • Several years later, I noticed the small tiles were missing at an alarming rate from the "jewel box" building. None were on the ground/floor around the building. After one of my exams, along with their test papers, several students also laid tiles on the front desk. The students proceeded to tell me that the tiles were considered good luck "charms" for the organic chemistry exams for students who brought the tiles to the exam. I never did know, however, if there was a correlation between tiles brought to the exams and the exam results.
  • In the mid 1970s, I had the privilege of listening, on many occasions, to Graham Solomons formulating his organic chemistry textbook, which became a huge success. I then enjoyed teaching from the book for a number years."

Ronald F. Federspiel, Scientific Research Manager, Department of Chemistry, USF, February 18, 2003

" In the early days, we had the very small lab next to the auditoria in the basement of Chemistry and the NMR was in the lab next to the small (now demonstration lab). We were making highly hindered alcohols using lithium alkyls with ketones and esters. These were done in glove bags. I will never forget the time one of the reactions got too hot and the flask broke. These are highly reactive, support their own combustion, burn in air, CO2 , and water and with organic solvents go through glove bags immediately. We were all diving for the floor when the reaction went."

Leon Mandell, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry Emeritus, formerly Dean, College of Natural Sciences, USF Faculty member,1984-2000. February 20, 2003

"I have two experiences to contribute to your collection of anecdotes: Once, a "pre-med" student who was failing my course came to see me and complained that my exams were too intimidating. His words were, "Dr. Mandell, I understand all this Organic Chemistry 'crap' but I get clutched up on the exams." I responded that I was glad he was not passing the course. This would assure that he would not be admitted to medical school, and this was a good thing since if he got "clutched up" about something as mundane as Organic Chemistry I did not want him to become a doctor. He quickly replied "Oh, but I am not going to be a surgeon, just a general practitioner."

Another student protested to me that my exams were unfair as only the best students could do well on these exams. He felt it would be more equitable to offer the students two types of exams, one for the good students and one for the average students.

I hope these are of use to you."

Robert S. Braman, Ph.D., USF Professor of Chemistry (1967-2003), February 20, 2003

"My first job was at a research company developing high energy fuels for rockets. These were borane compounds having high energies. Much of the work involved development of new analysis methods for boranes The next position was in Chicago at IIT Research Institute. Here a variety of research projects were done. It was necessary to produce research funding to keep your job there. After about seven years there, it was necessary to find a more stable position.

A research and teaching position at a university was much more stable, and USF seemed an excellent opportunity. USF had just started to expand its operations from undergraduate classes in chemistry to include graduate level courses. It also needed to expand the chemistry research in all areas. --- This required bringing in professors with more interest in research and ability to obtain research grants from NSF, EPA, and large industrial companies or agencies.

There were also needs for research-type laboratories and for the necessary equipment (updated) for the research. Some research funding from NSF was available, but research grants were also strongly needed to set up for the research. Fortunately there was the construction of the much needed SCA and BSF buildings which produced the needed research laboratories as well as making more room for the needed increase in undergraduate teaching laboratories and classrooms. The Chemistry Department has done well in expanding its teaching and research operations over the many years we have been here."

Dr Braman added some lighter comments

"In the early days, we used to have social events at USF for which I had to rent a "tux" to go and my wife had to rent a formal gown. I was also a 'marriage broker' for three sets of graduate students who married each other. They were Dr's. Mike and Stacey Ammons, Joe and Barbara Bricker, and Dr. Tim Shelley and Mrs. Carol Shelley."

William E. Swartz, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer, Constellation Technology Corporation, Largo, FL , USF Faculty member, 1972-86. February 26, 2003.

"I was brought into the USF family in 1972 to establish an X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (ESCA in those days) laboratory and conduct research. Dr. William Taft, Director of Sponsored Research, had "loaned" the Department of Chemistry $100,000 to purchase an ESCA spectrometer. When I arrived on campus, I was informed that it was my job to "sell" time on the spectrometer to industrial customers who might be interested in exploring the possibilities of the new ESCA technique. It was necessary to collect enough money to repay Dr. Taft's loan! After approximately 4 years and many incredibly "interesting" samples, I carried the last check to sponsored research. Dr. Taft smiled and indicated that he never thought it would happen. I got a big "at-a- boy" but no raise for that one.

In 1986, after 14 exciting years, many great students, numerous research successes and a great group of colleagues, I decided that my old ESCA 36 spectrometer had seen better days. Based on previous history, I marched over to Sponsored Research and asked for a $1,000,000 (the cost of a new instrument) loan, trumpeted my previous success and held out my hand. Much to my dismay, no loan was forthcoming. I then set out in search of the new Holy Grail. I found it across Tampa Bay at General Electric Neutron Devices Department in Largo.

One of my favorite classroom memories involves the use of "computer generated exams" in CHM 321. Each student was required to pass a series of exams that were generated by ye olde IBM mainframe. These exams were, of course, printed on the green and white striped IBM paper. I know, my age is showing! Every question was the same except for the equilibrium constants and concentrations that were randomly changed by the computer. Only if the student passed all of the computer exams could he/she move on to the "real" exam. The student had as many tries as required. Of course, each of these exams had to be graded and the results had to be recorded by someone. I had trouble rationalizing all of this as a new young faculty member. Therefore, one semester, after all of the students passed the IBM exams, I printed the "real" exam on plain white paper in portrait format (the choice wasn't landscape or portrait in those days) using identical "computer generated" questions. Despite their previous success, most of the students still could not calculate the pH of a 0.02 M solution of acetic acid! Obviously, the color of the paper and the font of the type mattered. I quickly went to a less laborious means of testing."

Daniel L. Akins, Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry, City University of New York, USF Faculty member , 1970-77. March 2, 2003

"It is great to hear from you and to congratulate the Chemistry Department on 40 years of outstanding service to USF's students and friends. I took a leave from the University in the summer of 1977, in order to run the Dynamics Program at the National Science Foundation. And, instead of returning after my leave, I chose to pursue an industrial position at the Polaroid Corporation and finally took a position at The City College of New York, where I still reside. I have extremely fond memories of my seven years at USF and continue to regard many there as life long friends.

I have reminisced about my years at USF, and several memories stand out. Two that immediately come to me, though they might seem somewhat trivial, are, first, the occasion when I had just finished a rapid run (i.e., quick jog) around the campus, as I made a habit of doing nearly everyday, and Brian Stevens, seeing me bent over in exhaustion and covered in perspiration, gave me some words of wisdom, as he was apt to do. Brian, by the way, was strolling across the campus with an umbrella in hand and sporting an ascot, very much the British gentleman. 'Dan,' he said, 'haven't I ever told you that one must learn to grow old gracefully.' These words have lingered in my psyche, but with an inverted influence, not because Brian's message was wrong, but because growing old, I have surmised, is something to be fought. The Chemistry Department at USF, after 40 years is still vibrant, maturing and not growing old in any sense of the word. I particularly congratulate the Department for this.

A second vignette about the Department also involved guiding insight by Brian Stevens. Because there were so very [few] Black scientists in the Department, and there was such a need for faculty advising of minority student groups and involvement in outreach efforts, I constantly found myself asked to serve on this or that committee that dealt with such issues. After seeing me almost consumed with research and teaching, and now this extra "burden" of service on more and more University committees, with an inability on my part of saying no when requested by either students or the administration, Brian said, (... with excuses, I am certain, for any perceived sexist overtones, which I assure you none were meant ...) 'Dan, it is a good thing that you are not a woman, for you would always be pregnant.' I took Brian's words to heart, and ever since have realized that scholarship in one's discipline must be of primary concern if one is to have meaningful impact on the host of other issues that arise.

In short, my experiences at USF, and the Chemistry Department in particular, have been life shaping. I am certain that stories like mine can be told by both students and young faculty that have grown with the Department, and have benefited from the mentoring and friendship that have been an integral aspect of life in the Department for the past 40 years. Keep up the good work."

Douglas J. Raber, Ph.D. , National Academy of Sciences, USF Faculty Member 1970- 1991, March 12, 2003

"1. When I came down for my interview in January 1970, I arrived in the afternoon. While waiting in my hotel room for several faculty who were taking me to dinner, I turned on the TV. The local news show put on the announcement that the first Ph.D. program at the University of South Florida had just been approved by the Board of Regents. And it was in chemistry. Not bad timing for use as a recruiting tool.

2. A few hours before that, I had arrived at the Tampa airport. This was a regular, full size jet aircraft, but they rolled a portable staircase to the plane and we walked a few feet across the tarmac to a narrow walkway that had a corrugated metal roof. That all disappeared very soon thereafter, when the new airport opened. It all helped to show how the area was growing -- and how it had been before.

3. Some may remember that telephone service in Florida was somewhat less reliable in the early 1970s. During the telephone conversation with Cal Maybury in which I was offered a position as Assistant Professor, the connection was lost twice. I guess that was good training for future stress levels.

4. In my first few years, I remember that we always had to fight -- or at least make special arrangements -- to use the library during quarter (before semesters) breaks. The growth of the university, just like that of the city, was not always painless. But we would call Mary Lou Harkness (then the head of the university library) and plead for access, only to hear that there was no reason for anyone to use the library since all the undergraduates were on break.

5. One of my favorites has to do with the NMR facilities, which were always one of the most important ways that the department was able to provide research support. In the early 1970s, our mainstay was an old A-60, but it got the job done. Of course we really wanted a more powerful instrument, and there was a 100-MHz machine that was not quite functional. Ron Federspiel spent a lot of time working on it, and every once in a while he'd come into one of the labs and announce with great joy and excitement that 'the 100 is working.' Of course, one of us would then say 'Ron, that's wonderful. I have a sample here that needs the higher-field analysis. Could you run a spectrum on the 100?' To which Ron would always respond, 'Well, actually it's not working quite that well.' "

Jesse S. Binford, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry, USF Faculty Member 1961-2003, March 25, 2003.

"The Ski Mask Caper

Often back in the 80's we would let students who had a good excuse take their exam in General Chemistry a day or two early. On one occasion I had two students who had requested to take one early because of a religious holiday. I split them up in my two labs on the second floor of the Physics Building. Suddenly the student who had been taking the exam alone burst into the lab where the other student and I were working and said that a guy wearing a mask had walked in and taken his exam. We all ran out just in time to see him disappear into the stairwell at the far end of the hall. We chased after him until we were outside the building but he was nowhere to be seen.

This thief had been pretty cool because while we were running down the stairs after him, he was running up the stairs to the third floor. Witnesses said they saw him run out the building at the other end, get on his bicycle and ride off. Sure enough we found a ski mask on the ground where he had parked his bicycle.

Of course we had to change the exam, or more likely just the answers. The proctors were alerted to be on the lookout for a puzzled student with a cheat sheet, but we never discovered who it was."

George P. Cobb, Ph.D. Division Leader, Environmental Health and Toxicology, Texas Tech University, former doctoral advisee of Dr. Braman's

"Braman anecdotes:

1) One beautiful summer day, Dr. B Drove to Orlando to get a box of thermal paper for an integrator. While driving back the paper rode in the back seat. By the time the paper got to Tampa, the first few inches had been thermally activated... and they were black. But we still had 3/4 of the box to use.

2) During a research excursion to Sequoia National forest, Dr. Braman and I were busily preparing a NOx system for automated use. The First Friday we were there we were discussing the check list to do each week. Check the pump oil was one item. Soon there after Dr. B insisted that he needed to go to the general store at the park for last minute supplies. About 15 minutes later he returned with re-sealable containers for pump oil... Grolsh beer bottles (do not know if I spelled the beer brand correctly). Fortunately each bottle was full so we both enjoyed the contents in preparation for future pump oil changes.

3) These stories are repayment for his anecdotes during my Departmental seminar when he sniffed the water cup I had at the podium and accused this Carolina boy of having moonshine in the cup.

4) Seriously, Dr. B was a great advisor and was patient and helpful in my education. I appreciate his mentorship during my graduate career and afterward.

Hope this helps."

Lolita Binford, M.S. (May22, 2003)

Note: I encouraged the Binfords to tell the "bicycle story" various versions of which I had heard over the years, and Mrs. Binford graciously consented (DFM)..

"When the Binfords arrived in Tampa in 1961, Jesse rode his bicycle from home to the University every day and often locked it to the railing in the breeze way of the Chemistry Building so it would not be stolen (there were no bicycle racks on campus). He had been warned that campus regulations did not allow bicycles on grass or sidewalks. On February 22, 1963 Jesse's bicycle was ticketed. Jesse had to pay the fine in order to appeal the ticket before the Traffic Committee. He lost the appeal.

On March 21, 1963, Jesse's bicycle was ticketed in his locked lab (still no bicycle racks on campus). This meant that the officer had unlocked his lab door in order to give him the citation. Jesse protested and refused to pay that fine, which resulted in a written warning that all his parking privileges on campus were cancelled and any vehicles registered to him would be towed away at his expense.

Jesse's students knew about the restrictions on his "vehicles" and tried to find ways to help. All dressed-up Jesse and Lolita were going to a play at the University theater one evening and parked the car off campus north of Fletcher. As they walked along Fletcher two students in a little VW Beetle drove up and asked "Dr, Binford, can we give you a ride somewhere?" They were in the process of moving and had lots of boxes in the backseat. They threw the boxes in the ditch, and took us to the theater.

A bicycle rack mysteriously appeared in the chemistry parking lot. Jesse purchased an eight foot chain and two padlocks with which he secured his bike to the rack every day. Students and professors kept watch to make sure the authorities did not cut the chain.

On April 16, 1963, Jesse received a memo from the Security Office stating that an anonymous donor had paid his fine, and that "This will restore your parking privileges on campus."

William H. Taft, Ph.D., Professor of Geology and Director, Division of Sponsored Research, and Director, Graduate Studies 1963-1978.(February 2004) Date of anecdote. 1964

"When I was a full-time Geology faculty member, I had a research grant from NSF to study carbonate geochemistry, and field work with boats was a key aspect. And, of course, the boat engines would need gasoline.

This is where the problem began. The Department of Procurement was willing to provide one oil company credit card so gasoline could be purchased at a marina. But they weren't willing to provide cards to more than one company. Their argument was that only the President could be issued more than one credit card. So I said, 'Fine, if the particular marina we go to for gas will not accept the issued card I'll put my students up in the nearest motel at USF expense until you can send the right card.'

A Procurement representative contacted President Allen, who said, "Give him what he needs.' And we were off and running."

Dean F. Martin, Ph.D. (March 1, 2004)

Bill Taft convinced me that I should become involved in environmental chemistry research in 1966. One of his arguments was that this way the entire would will be my laboratory. Not having to worry about assigned space could be an attractive argument when regular laboratory space was always in short supply. But what Bill left out was that you needed protection beyond what safety glasses could provide.

Patricia Dooris (Ph.D.'78) and I went to Lake Starvation (just off Dale Mabry and now Lake Park) to collect some water samples from the middle of the lake. We had just purchased what I laughingly called the "Martin Family yacht", a smallish life raft and I had blown it up at home to test it. I think one of our sons with a long toenail managed to accidentally induce a slow leak as he stood it in watching me pump with a bicycle pump. Anyway, convinced that all was well, I deflated it, and in due course Tricia and I drove to Lake Starvation. I pumped up the raft, launched it, got in with my paddle and paddled easily to the middle of the lake where I collected a sample of water, then started paddling back. It about that time that I noticed the raft was getting smaller because of a slow(?) leak and was in fact getting closer and closer to me and I wasn't moving as fast coming back as I was going out.. Anyway the raft and I were becoming more and more intimate and I finally reached shore or close enough to wade in. And everything seemed fine and I deflated the remaining air, packed it in the trunk and we returned to the Science Center lot.

As we were going in, Tricia suddenly said, "Did you see that alligator?" "What alligator?" "The one that followed you in from the middle of the lake." I wonder if I looked like a giant marshmallow to that gator. I got rid of the 'yacht".

T. W. Graham Solomons,  Ph.D. (Professor Emeritus, Charter Faculty, 1960-1990), Anecdote provided March 22, 2011.)

N. B.   Invention of the  Foucault pendulum in 1851 by French physicist Léon Foucault was the first simple proof of the rotation of the Earth in an easy-to-see display.

The Foucault pendulum that has been in the Entry of the Physics building for over 46 years was there because of a chemist.   At the time, the late Dr. Clarence Clark, Chair of Physical Sciences asked  Dr. Solomons  what he thought should be in the Entry area of Physics.  Because Graham was teaching a section of Physical Science,  he suggested the Pendulum because the class had been covering this topic, and it happened.  [The pendulum was scheduled to be moved from Physics to the Interdisciplinary Science Building .]

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