What is it like to be a scientist? Chemist Robert Curl talks with Karina

What is it like to be a scientist? Chemist Robert Curl talks with Karina

We met with Dr. Robert Curl to discuss career choices that students face today and much more. Enjoy!

Ever wonder how you managed NOT to blow yourself up? Nobel Prize winner Robert Curl does as he talks with student Karina Macosko about his start in chemistry. He shares what he has learned over decades as a scientist and how that might apply to to students who face tough career choices today.

I still don't regard myself as actually being a scientist… I just like doing it.” – Dr. Robert Curl

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Karina Macosko’s Interview with Chemist Dr. Robert Curl

Image credits: Robert Curl portrait by Douglas A. Lockard. To view a copy of this license, visit Creative Commons.

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)


Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from AcademicInfluence.com, and I’m here with Professor Curl. And I just wanna know…

…thinking way back to when you first got into the science field or got into chemistry, what kind of influenced you to go into the field you went into?

Robert Curl: Well, it wasn’t actually... It was curiosity, but not science because well, I can remember exactly one Christmas, I think it was when I was 9 years old, I got a chemistry set for Christmas. And those days, the lawyers had not gotten involved in things so much, so this chemistry set actually had chemicals in it. [chuckle] So I started playing with it and it’s this normal thing you have. There’s a little sort of brochure that comes with this and then this suggests experiments you can do. You can make... Pour things together and have them change color. You can create colorful fires and interesting smoke like colored smoke and things like that. And so I just enjoyed it. And after I had kind of mixed together everything that came with the set, that I had to think about what’s a way that I could get more chemicals. And I particularly liked things that combusted spontaneously, things that made explosions, things that smelled bad.

And so but no there was no science in it, not science, but it was something that I continued to pursue. Fortunately, I was not a good enough chemist to pull myself up so I managed to survive. And so I was still very interested in chemistry, and when I went to high school... This is Thomas Jefferson in San Antonio. There’s another guy from San Antonio, Thomas Jefferson. Anyway, they took chemistry in the year junior before. So I was in 11th grade at that time, and the chemistry teacher liked me. She could tell I was very interested in chemistry. And so she encouraged me and actually the next year when I was a senior, we did experiments together. And it was a lot of fun. So that sort of sent me on the path of chemistry. I still don’t regard myself as actually being a scientist. I just...

Karina: Really.

Robert: I just like doing it. I like to work. And so then I went off and then I’ve graduated and sort of never looked back, always stayed being a chemist, whatever. Whenever you’re about somewhere in your sophomore or junior in college, a lot of people have this thing of, “Should I... I’m on this course. Is that the right course? Should I be doing something else?” So I thought a little bit about being a physics major and I liked physics, but I thought I wasn’t enough in mathematics to do physics properly. So then I thought about being a chemical engineer. I’ve thought about it a little bit, but I finally decided, no, I wasn’t really interested in being a chemical engineer. So I just stuck with chemistry all the way through. So anyway, it was... I’ve liked it. It’s been a good life, so.

Karina: Yeah. Well, why is it that you don’t consider yourself a scientist?

…it's only when you realize that you have to come up with ideas for research, you have to think things through in your own research problems for things that nobody had done yet, that you become a scientist.” – Dr. Robert Curl

Robert: I consider. I finally got to be a scientist. I think I really became a scientist sometime. That’s a good question. We didn’t have... There was never any... When I came along, there was not as... There were no science fairs for high school. There were no undergraduate research at that time. So I think the only time you become a scientist is when you start research. In other words, you can learn a lot of science. You can have a lot of knowledge at your disposal and by the time I was graduated from Rice, I had a lot of knowledge at my disposal. But it’s only when you realize that you have to come up with ideas for research, you have to think things through in your own research problems for things that nobody had done yet, that you become a scientist. So that was in graduate school and that’s one time that I really decided I was a scientist.

0:05:55.7Over the years

Karina: Wow. Fascinating. And I’m sure there are so many things that you can do within the realm of chemistry. So could you just kind of briefly explain to us what you did over your career and maybe in terms that somebody like me who’s not a chemist, I can understand.

Robert: Well. There’s a famous saying by the famous New Zealand chemist, the guy who discovered the nature of the Adam after he won a Nobel Prize. This is a... One of the problems of being old is that the names, they don’t come back easily to you.

Karina: That’s okay.

Robert: So anyway, he said that 98% of scientific publications are like stamp collecting. And he could afford this rather for earth’s relevance. He can say that because he obviously didn’t go in, he didn’t do this stamp collecting. His most exciting work was done after he won a Nobel Prize. So anyway, that’s kind of true. It’s really hard to come up with ideas that are so great that people fall in line to make some sort of big leap forward. And so most of my career was... And looking back on it was sort of pedestrian. I was... My main emphasis on what I’ve done... Did was micro-spectroscopy so... Which is a subject which can be intensely interesting but only the other molecular spectroscopy is very useful sometimes in the practical sense but not necessarily. For example, the discovery of a maser, which led to the laser was somebody or Townes, Charles Townes, was interested in and some phenomenon. It involved molecular spectroscopy of ammonia molecules.

One of the major reasons I like science is because once you discard something or find out something new… nobody else can replace it. It's irreplaceable. Nobody else can rediscover it.” – Dr. Robert Curl

So it can be this sheer jaw opening that comes about from something that started out to be what looks like relatively pure work, pure curiosity kind of work. So anyway, so I did a lot of micro-spectroscopy, enjoyed it. Some of my papers are really gonna be last thing. Actually, the last... One of the major reasons I like science is because once you discard something or find out something new knowledge, nobody else can replace it. It’s irreplaceable. Nobody else can rediscover it. Well, if you’re an engineer, then if you make something, somebody will come along and make something better.

Karina: Right.

Robert: So the guy who invented Polaroid cameras was completely put out of business by digital cameras and so on. There are many, many examples of that. So that’s why I like science, is that when you do something, it’s done by golly.


Karina: Yeah. You can never be put out of business as a chemist, right?

Robert: You can never... Your work is gonna be lasting. Anything you discover cannot be rediscovered or may be rediscovered, but then people find out, this guy discovered this back 20 years ago. So it’s sort of… science is a wonderful thing because it’s so interactive. You interact with people that are nearby. You interact with people all over the country. You interact with people all over the world, finding out what their ideas are and try to use their discoveries to make new discoveries.

0:10:46.6Some advice

Karina: Wow. That is incredible. Well, looking back at what you’ve done, all of the things that can’t be rediscovered, what advice would you have for somebody my age who is just starting out, just trying to figure out what they wanna do? What advice would you have for them going forward?

Robert: Well, I have a grandson...

Karina: Really.

Robert: Who is... He’s doing his junior year. He’s in the middle of his junior year, and he’s asking me these questions. And I’m always trying to tell him, “Well, you know, it’s your life. You have to decide. I’m not gonna be responsible for your going off on some track and then discovering that you hate it, and one of my friend, Adele, tell me to do that.” So you have this experience of feeling like when you begin to think about careers and a commitment to a career of how do you decide if I take this path, it’ll be hard to get over on that path after a few years.

So for example, my grandson loves history, but he also likes money. [chuckle] And it’s hard to make a lot of money in history unless you’re extremely talented and able to write bestselling history books. So he’s torn. “Should I go business? Should I go history? Should I go... Maybe I should go to law school?” So that’s... You’re just... Find out... What you find is that you have to reach the point where you have to weigh your options and what option am I gonna take. Do this, do that.

Now, I didn’t have that much problem because I had such a long-term commitment to chemistry. It was not like what I thought about as maybe I should make shift to physics. It wasn’t really a very strong pull or same at least switching to chemical engineering. And the thing is that, I don’t know, certainly for me, having started the research, it’s addictive. So I became addicted to it and never, never even thought about doing anything different.

0:13:36.1Sign off

Karina: Wow. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really so cool hearing everything that led up to your career, this amazing career that you’ve had. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

Robert: You’re welcome. Nice to meet you, Karina.

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