Life in a Sea of Oxygen [Protein Structure and Folding]

April 15th, 2014 by Lipscomb, J. D.

During my third week of high school chemistry, our instructor left in the middle of class in obvious pain and passed away shortly thereafter. This sad event could have spelled disaster for a budding career in chemistry, except for the fact that it occurred at Brandywine High School near Wilmington, Delaware, where 2,500 Ph.D. chemists lived in the school district. These included by father, Robert D. Lipscomb, who like so many of his Dupont Central Research & Development colleagues was a product of the Roger Adams/Reynold Fuson/Carl "Speed" Marvel/John Bailar, Jr. era at the University of Illinois. Chemistry class was taken over in principle by a substitute, who was an excellent football coach but knew little chemistry. In fact, it became a learning experiment, fed vicariously by a community of nearly unparalleled depth of expertise, and as I came to experience for the first time, an inbred commitment to understanding over learning. Our fathers and mothers taught us every night and we taught each other in class. We learned to hear how others interpreted the principles of chemistry and to evaluate quickly how this fit into our own framework for understanding. I have used these lessons, both the importance of listening and the commitment to the profession, continuously in the 50 years that have since passed. I have encountered them in one form or another in each of my mentors. My graduate school advisor I. C. "Gunny" Gunsalus said it very concisely: Science is about "Learning to Listen". Learn to listen to what your collaborators and students say beneath the words and to what experiments tell you beyond your expectations.