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Chemist David E. Bergbreiter (left), along with biology graduate student Emily Rose (center) received congratulations from Dean of Science H. Joseph Newton (right) last fall after earning the College of Science's inaugural Undergraduate Research Mentoring Awards.

COLLEGE STATION --

In celebration of Student Research Week (March 23-27) at Texas A&M University, the College of Science will be taking five with five different people involved in various aspects and stages of research at Texas A&M and beyond. Today's segment features Texas A&M chemist and Presidential Professor David E. Bergbreiter.

Bergbreiter, an expert in organic chemistry and polymer science and an Eppright Professor since 2002, joined the Texas A&M faculty in 1974 after receiving his Ph.D. that same year from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Renowned both for his teaching and research prowess, he is one of six College of Science faculty to earn the lifetime distinction of Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence (2006), Texas A&M's highest award for classroom achievement. In addition, he has received university-level Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Awards in Teaching (2005) and Research (2008), as well as the Exxon Education Foundation Award, the ARMCO Mentorship Award and the Wells Fargo Honors Faculty Mentor Award (2005). Last but not least, he is featured in the Texas A&M Center for Teaching Excellence's Teaching for Tomorrow series.

In 2011 Bergbreiter was named an American Chemical Society Fellow after previously being recognized with the 2008 ACS Southwest Regional Award for his extensive research and career achievement in polymer chemistry. In his 39 years at Texas A&M, Bergbreiter has directed the research of hundreds of co-authors of his 300-plus peer-reviewed publications, has been selected as a Fish Camp namesake, and has "had the pleasure of introducing thousands of sophomores to the enchantment of Ochem [organic chemistry]."

Last fall, Bergbreiter was honored with the College of Science's inaugural Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award for faculty. Established in 2014, the annual award is intended to recognize one faculty member and graduate student each year for the important investment each makes in the future of scientific research. Bergbreiter elaborates on that commitment and more as follows:


What made you decide to pursue a career in a STEM field and, specifically, in chemistry?
"I was always good in math (at least until college), and I liked science. I found astronomy particularly interesting and worked every weekend through middle school and high school at the planetarium in Chicago. A key component in these activities was the support of my parents and family who encouraged my interests through reading and by giving me the opportunities to learn. My family was far from learned but made education a priority. One Christmas I remember getting a book on meteorology from a favorite aunt who knew of my astronomy interests -- a book I kept but never read, as weather was not my interest. I more or less stumbled into chemistry as a major, though. It was the only AP course I had, and it was the only science major that I thought would get me a job after college."

What has been your most rewarding success or accomplishment, as well as your biggest hurdle thus far in your career?
"My biggest hurdle has always been my desire to continue to grow and to do things that are new -- things that challenge me to learn about new areas or to deal with the changes that occur as the years roll along. I don't know that I have one most rewarding success or accomplishment. There are many, depending on where I was in my career and where I was as a person. 1965-75: my first publication and my success in beginning studies of physical organic chemistry at soft surfaces/getting a faculty position at Texas A&M without a post-doc; getting married. 1975-1985: success in providing seminal explanations of the parameters and basis under which enolates and related species are useful in asymmetric organic synthesis; Sarah (1977) and Amy (1981). 1985-1995: becoming an established authority in polymer chemistry, catalysis and polymer surface chemistry -- areas in which I had no formal training; having my daughters pass through their K-12 years, building a house. 1995-2005: inventing 'smart' catalysts and new strategies for sustainable homogeneous catalysis; seeing my daughters graduate from college/graduate school. 2005-2015: not quite done yet!"

You are notable for being as equally renowned for your teaching as your research during your Texas A&M career. What's your secret to maintaining such a successful balance?
"I really like both teaching and research. If you have a passion for things, you fit them together. Also, I at least think teaching at all levels in college can fit into research. For example, you talk to all sorts of people about your research. That includes the poor guy sitting next to you on a plane, a visiting scientist, an undergraduate or a relative. In graduate school, I explained what I was doing my first Christmas home to the aunt who bought me the aforementioned meteorology book using just my hands, gloves and some mittens from a 3-year old niece without mentioning the stereochemistry of a bimolecular electrophilic substitution reaction on a chiral center. That explanation probably was part of a very short preamble later the following spring when I met with a Texaco scientist who was visiting MIT on the occasion of my getting a Texaco fellowship.

"I also view teaching as a sort of experiment. You try new things. In the same way I make hypotheses about how I can make a new process work and design experiments to test them, I try to figure out ways to get fundamental concepts of organic chemistry across to students. That is an especially true for me at the sophomore level in organic chemistry or at the graduate level in outside presentations and in mentoring Ph.D. students. Since teaching and research are just like two halves of an apple, they fit together well. The only real issue, then, is the balancing act of setting daily, weekly or monthly priorities."

Name three things students are guaranteed to get experience in within your lab.
"Failure. Research is a grand enterprise that, in the end, is described in logical detail with structures, results and observations. However, that day-to-day process involves a lot of experiments that do not work the way one hopes. We teach the results of research and highlight them in presentations, and we can succinctly describe how to repeat our work in four or five pages of experimental detail, but that final result is most often the result of many experiments where the first experiments simply did not work as 'planned.'

"Success! Eventually, everyone has successes, too. There is an element of luck in this, as some projects, however well planned and however well precedented, will not work. Successes are sometimes small, sometimes more substantial. Most often, they are realized with coauthorship of a paper or a presentation locally or at a regional or national meeting. However, even where one's success is modest, one learns things about nature -- things that can and most often are used in further work.

"Familiarity with Analysis and Characterization Techniques and Presentations. Texas A&M University is a Tier 1 institution. We have state-of-the-art equipment, excellent facilities and a collection of outstanding researchers. Undergraduates in my lab and in others' laboratories personally and individually use this state-of-the-art infrastructure every day. They also learn proper techniques to safely handle chemicals in a research environment, and they get to analyze and report on their results, both in written and oral reports. All of these activities typify research at a graduate level in that you identify problems, pose questions and methodically solve these problems in order to answer these questions."

Why do you feel it is important for students to get involved in research, particularly as undergraduates?
"Eventually, everyone graduates or at least moves on. However, learning does not end for a scientist once his or her formal classroom instruction ends. Seminars, one-on-one meetings and the observation of the physical changes that occur during an experiment or the analysis of the results of an experiment are learning experiences that are quite different from doing a problem set or taking an hour exam. While students already have experience with unstructured social development in their day-to-day lives, a lab experience shows them what they can look forward to, should they pursue a career that involves research, and what research entails for those who chose alternative career paths. Most often, students find they genuinely like having the independence and opportunities to use their initiative and creativity in coming up with ways to obtain and/or purify products or increase the efficiency or yield of a reaction. That's great. However, it can be equally useful for students to find they don't like something. Sometimes students find that my laboratory, which involves wet chemistry, is not what they like to do. Learning that you do not want to do a particular type of chemistry -- experimental chemistry, in my case -- is also fine, since chemists can and do all manner of things, including working with instruments, in silico research or in using their scientific acumen in entirely different arenas like medicine, law or management."

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Now in its 18th year, Student Research Week is a friendly competition that highlights both undergraduate and graduate research at Texas A&M, one of the country's top research universities. The weeklong celebration fosters an environment for students, faculty and administrators to learn about student research at Texas A&M and also gives students an opportunity to win numerous awards and cash prizes. To learn more about the week's schedule and specific events, go to http://srw.tamu.edu/.

For more information about research within the College of Science, go to http://www.science.tamu.edu/research/.

-aTm-

Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or Dr. David E. Bergbreiter, (979) 845-3437 or bergbreiter@chem.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • David E. Bergbreiter

  • On Deck in Doha

    Bergbreiter got a jump on his 2015 spring semester, guest-lecturing in Texas A&M University at Qatar chemistry professor Hassan Bazzi's polymer chemistry class the week prior to opening ceremonies in Aggieland. (Credit: Lesley Kriewald '99, Texas A&M at Qatar's Office of Marketing and Communications and a 1999 Texas A&M chemistry graduate!)

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