The Guy With The Questions At NOS: Albert S. Matlack
If you're attending this year's National Organic Symposium at Princeton University, you know him as the elderly gentleman who's stood up to ask multiple seminar speakers about their catalyst loadings during question and answer periods. But there's much more to Albert S. Matlack besides his inquisitive nature.
Matlack is an adjunct professor of chemistry at the University of Delaware, but he didn't start his chemistry career there. Before his time in academe he held a research position at the Hercules Powder Company, where he worked right across the hall from none other than 2010 chemistry Nobel laureate Richard Heck. Though Matlack survived the round of layoffs that affected Heck, he remembers those days well.
"After World War II, it was a boom time for chemists," he recalls. "People believed you could solve all sorts of problems through chemistry."
But by the 1970's and 80's, with the U.S. economy in the doldrums, layoffs seemed to be the solution to financial troubles to companies including Hercules, he says.
In his later days at Hercules, Matlack's main project involved polymerization of dicyclopentadiene to give a polymer with the tradename Metton. But eventually, "the company cut off Metton and they didn't know what to do with me," he says. He left Hercules in 1994, after securing a teaching gig at Delaware with the help of chemistry professor John L. Burmeister.
"The first course I taught was industrial chemistry," Matlack says. But an article in C&EN (Matlack is an avid reader and a 63-year ACS member) convinced him to try something else-- to combine his passions for chemistry and environmentalism and develop a course in green chemistry. He's been teaching that course ever since. By the late 1990s he decided to write a textbook, but had a hard time finding a publisher for a green chemistry text. "Publishers didn't think the field was going anywhere," he says. Today "Introduction to Green Chemistry" is in its second edition.
Even though Matlack has a few other things keeping him busy besides green chemistry-- his presidency of the Society of Natural History of Delaware and his two grandchildren-- chemistry education is still very important to him. "Many people get turned off from chemistry in their first year learning about it," he says. "But there are still many problems for chemists to solve, and chemistry can be fun."
More Matlack:A Delaware News Journal Article about Matlack's environmentalism efforts