Volume I, Issue 3: February 2009

Perfect chemistry

by Jennifer Fitzenberger, University Communications

Donald Blake and F. Sherwood Rowland
Paul R. Kennedy
Nobelist F. Sherwood Rowland (right) and chemistry chair Donald Blake have collaborated at UCI for 30 years.

The first person Donald Blake met when he walked into UC Irvine's chemistry department in 1978 was F. Sherwood Rowland, clad in shorts and sandals, a towering 6 feet 5 inches tall.

Rowland, department chair, was considering the UCLA senior for a graduate position.

"We talked about lots of things, and in the end he said that as long as the unofficial transcript I had brought with me had not been doctored, I would be accepted," Blake says. "I liked his directness and — maybe more subconsciously than consciously — I thought working with someone as upfront as he was would be a good way to spend the next four to five years."

Thirty years later, Blake is the department chair, and he and Rowland work shoulder-to-shoulder researching atmospheric chemistry. Over the years, they've shared many personal and professional triumphs. Rowland received the Nobel Prize for discovering that chlorofluorocarbons damage the ozone layer, and Blake is world renowned for measuring atmospheric gases.

One might ask: What don't they know about each other? Here, Rowland and Blake pose four questions they never asked each other before.

***

Rowland: Your decision to go to graduate school came late in your senior year at UCLA, after the application deadline for admission and financial support through a teaching assistantship. What would you have done instead if UCI chemistry had filled all of its teaching assistantships for the coming year?

If graduate school didn't work out, I thought about becoming a fireman.

Blake: Interesting. I've never thought of that. I suppose I would have gotten a job in Escondido, probably as a mechanic, and then applied to graduate school the following year. If graduate school didn't work out, I thought about becoming a fireman.

Rowland: What are the two most remote locations to which you have traveled to collect atmospheric samples?

Blake: I collected samples at the South Pole in December 2005 and about 1,000 feet above the North Pole in February 1992. The Antarctic experience is one for the ages, and I would return any time. Maybe it was the limited telephone and e-mail access!

Rowland: Which of your several hundred scientific papers has drawn the most public interest?

Blake: I am most proud of the Mexico City Science paper from 1995. Fortunately, it came out a few months before it was announced that you had won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry. If the paper had come out after the announcement, few would have known that I had anything to do with the Mexico City study — not because you wouldn't have told folks, but because the press was so excited that you had won the Nobel that they figured you did everything in the lab, including taking out the trash. [The Science study found that hydrocarbons from household emissions — as opposed to motor vehicles or industrial plants – contributed greatly to Mexico City air pollution.]

Rowland: What was your best track-and-field event in high school or college?

Blake: I was a fairly good pole vaulter in high school but injured my neck my senior year. I also was a sprinter. Once pole vaulting was out, I increased my effort in sprinting the last season in high school. The 220-yard dash was my best event in college.

***

Blake: In terms of graduate student potential, how do you think Willard Libby would have rated you in 1950? [Libby, who won the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in developing radiocarbon dating, was Rowland's mentor and his research adviser at the University of Chicago.]

... my research skills were mostly unproven and somewhat on the lazy side.

Rowland: Outstanding potential. After all, they did give me one of the department fellowships in 1949, after my first year, and I won a nationally competitive fellowship in 1950, at the end of the second year. But at that time, my research skills were mostly unproven and somewhat on the lazy side.

Blake: With what type of funding did you hire Mario Molina and did it have anything to do with atmospheric chemistry? [Rowland and Molina shared the Nobel Prize for their CFC discovery.]

Rowland: Yes, the contract did have something to do with atmospheric chemistry. Mario was employed as a postdoctoral researcher with funds from my long-running U.S. Atomic Energy Commission contract. If you had asked the question differently, for instance, whether those contracts from 1956 to 1972 had anything to do with atmospheric chemistry, the answer would have been no. However, the 1973 contract contained a proposal to study the fate of chlorofluoromethanes in the atmosphere, and Mario chose that topic for his research.

Blake: Did you ever think in the mid-1970s that you would win the Nobel?

Rowland: Through 1972, there would have been no reason to think about it. Many scientists have highly rewarding lives without ever considering whether they might be nominated for a Nobel Prize. Geoscientists and mathematicians know they won't because those scientific fields weren't mentioned in Alfred Nobel's will, which established the Nobel Prize. But for ozone depletion in the 1970s, no.

Blake: In the more than 40 years since you started UCI's chemistry department, has it reached a level of prominence that is below, above or about where you would have expected it to be?

Rowland: Our department and the UCI campus are both on the high end of what my hopes and expectations were in 1964.