Pinnacle 8/12/21

History of Richard Bleil

The journey has been a fascinating one. I’ve arisen to great heights and fallen into the abyss. I’ve written on the abyss several times, but I’m not sure I’ve ever written about the heights.

My journey began in 1975, when I was in seventh grade. That was the time I decided I wanted to be a scientist. At that stage, I didn’t know what specific discipline of science to choose, but I wasn’t interested in medicine. I wanted to understand how things worked and figure out the mysteries of the world. It might seem like a cool thing to settle on something like this so early in life, but it has its drawbacks. Because I was only interested in science, I stopped noticing other things, like arts, history and culture. I squandered the opportunity to learn about them in college, focusing only on getting passing grades. Now, today, I find myself trying to play catch up. If you’ve been keeping up recently, you probably know I’ve just procured an antique piano and am taking piano lessons from a friend of mine, and a guitar is on its way and should arrive in another week or two. I’ve worked hard to learn on my own about art, politics, history, and all of those disciplines that today seem so critically important to be a well-rounded and truly educated person. How I wish I could go back and have the opportunity to have learned these things earlier.

It took quite a long time to specifically settle on chemistry. That happened in the eighth grade. I was taking a middle school biology course, and I remember the quiz on frog anatomy. On the quiz, the frog was opened up, and organs were pinned. The teacher pointed them out individually to us saying, “here is number three…here is number four…” I nailed it. Well, I was sure I nailed it. I was very disappointed when I got nine and a half out of ten when he returned the graded quizzes. I was never (and this might surprise some people who know me) a high-grade person. I was mainly a C student, so this should have thrilled me, but I was so sure I had done the quiz perfectly that it was disappointing. The one I had half a point taken off was “Fatty Bodies”. I lost half a point because I simply wrote “Fat.” This turned me off of biology, simply because if it was that much memorization and that uptight, it wasn’t for me.

So I turned to chemistry. And I’m glad I did. Biology is interesting (I’ve always loved biology, but never had a passion for it), but chemistry is truly the central science. Since everything is made of matter, everything, including biology, can be studied in terms of chemistry. The only science more fundamental to chemistry is physics (which I also love), and the only discipline more fundamental than physics is mathematics (again, a great love of mine).

Having settled on chemistry as my career path of choice in the eighth grade, I never looked back. I completed my chemistry Bachelor’s degree at the University of Cincinnati by the skin of my teeth. My grades weren’t good enough to go directly into graduate school, so I worked for a couple of years as an analytical chemist, which bored me to tears. I took a couple of graduate level chemistry courses in night school (that was pretty much the only option back then since this predated any online courses because the internet was still only for the government and scientists). Two years later I applied again, and was accepted to Boston College in the theoretical chemistry discipline (chemistry but also comprised of physics and mathematics). In 1992, I earned my Ph.D. simply in “Chemistry” because “Statistical Thermodynamics” wasn’t a program on the books.

Having completed my doctorate in chemistry, there was really only one more choice, industry or academia. At an American Chemical Society conference, after presenting my research, a couple of men from Polaroid approached me and asked if I would be interested in working there. I wish I had considered it further. They were the chemists who developed polarized lenses (I’ve written on polarized light previously) and were looking for a young chemist to replace them when they retire. At that point, though, I had settled on academia.

In academia, there are several ranks of professor. Instructor and Adjunct are basically yearly contract teachers. They don’t have the responsibilities of “tenure track” and basically are just there to teach. They’re unfortunately (and unfairly) lower paid, and at higher risk for sudden termination. They just don’t have the respect. Most new faculty shoot for “tenure track” in which there are three or four ranks depending on how you count them. Everybody begins as an “Tenure-Track Assistant Professor” (even if, like I, you are the only professor in the discipline), where they have, typically, five years to prove they are “tenure worthy”. In their fourth year they apply for tenure. If they don’t get tenure, they will be offered one more one-year contract, and then they are not allowed to teach at that institution any longer. I’m not talking about a specific university here. This is pretty much the American standard. If you are granted tenure, it means your position is guaranteed for life. You cannot be dismissed except for something very stupid, like breaking the law.

I did obtain tenure and was promoted (as is standard) to the next level of “Associate Professor”. In five years further, you are typically eligible to apply for the third and more or less final level of “Full Professor”. There is no penalty if you are denied, but it’s a nice pay raise. It’s the pinnacle of the teaching ranks. The rank that follows, “Professor Emeritus”, is an honorary title granted to retired professors.

And I made the rank of “Tenured Full Professor”. I was teaching in South Dakota, single, with a bucketful of accomplishments. I started with four majors, and had grown the program to over thirty (quite an accomplishment since I was still the only chemistry professor on campus) rivaling even the biology program with four faculty. I had written and was overseeing two programs (physical science and forensic science), although my efforts were not recognized, especially by the dean that helped me finally realize that I had had enough.

I stayed there for several more years, but the reality is that attaining the rank of full professor (which I joked was spelled “F-O-O-L professor”) was rather anti-climactic. I don’t know why this should be. Maybe it’s because it was nothing but a title, or perhaps it was because I had nobody in my life to really celebrate the victory with. But for me, working hard with chemistry shows, recruiting activities, senior capstone research, routinely teaching overload along with everything else I was doing, it was just more of the same. The university that promised more chemistry faculty if I could increase the number of students still hadn’t hired anybody new. The science coordinator favored his own discipline of biology rather than recognizing the importance of promoting the entire school and all of its programs. I don’t know. But it was disappointing. Everything I ever wanted was finally in my hands, and it just didn’t seem to matter.

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