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Mas Subramanian Oral History Interview

September 30, 2015 – 10:00a.m.

Video: “Luck Only Favors the Alert Mind” . September 30, 2015

Location: Valley Library, Oregon State University.
Interviewer:  Chris Petersen

1:29:49 - Abstract | Biography | Download Transcript (PDF)


Chris Petersen: Alright, today is September 30th, 2015. We're in the Valley Library with Mas Subramanian, Professor of Chemistry here at OSU, and we'll talk a lot about his career in science and his association with Oregon State, but I'd like to begin with some fairly detailed inquiry into your upbringing in India. Where were you born?

Mas Subramanian: I was born in Chennai, used to be called Madras, before. It's a southern part of India, a big city.

CP: Is that where you grew up?

MS: Yeah, I grew up most of my life there, at least, most of my schooling. I started first grade and ended finishing Ph.D. in same city.

CP: What was your parents' backgrounds?

MS: Both of my parent did not go to college. So my father was in military and then he went and joined the wireless communications, for the telephone industry in India. That's where he learned; mostly at his job. So he kind of trained as an electrical engineer; self-taught mostly.

CP: Did you have siblings?

MS: I have two brothers. One is in India still. He was an executive in bank, he's retired. And my younger brother, he's in Indiana University. Actually he is, I think, currently vice provost of strategic initiatives.

CP: So I'm interested in learning a little bit more about community life in Madras. What was it like for you growing up in the city?

MS: Oh, it's a large city with fifteen, twenty million folks, including the suburbs. I grew up in the middle of the city. It's a city where you can spend all the time outside the home, because you have so many things to do in large cities. So it is quite different from the way, when I came to U.S., actually. So the community is very close-knit community, so everybody just walks into the next door neighbor and talk about whatever they want. Quite different from here.

CP: What did you do for fun as a boy?

MS: Mostly I played cricket. In India, everyone plays cricket. If you don't play cricket – like American football or baseball here – if you don't play cricket, you don't belong to the group you belong, actually. So we all play cricket. Even if you don't have all the equipment to play cricket, you still improvise something. That's the dream of most of the kids, grow up to become a cricket player.

CP: Did you have a job as a boy at all? Did you have to work at all?

MS: No, I don't need to work at all. Mostly my parents – pretty much stayed with my parents until I was doing my Ph.D., so I never really worked for a job, actually. Although I did some volunteer work in temples and so on. That's one thing in India, as a boy, we do, actually. We call altar boy here, same thing we do in India, we go to the temple and help and so on. But we don't have a job.

CP: Was religion important to your family?

MS: Yes, at least my grandparents were very religious, and my mom is extremely religious and also she was very superstitious too, actually. My dad was kind of, he believes in religion but he's not a hard core religious man, actually. Because he was in military, so he knows the reality of life.

CP: On that topic, I'm interested in knowing more about the political environment for you growing up. India was still a young country, in terms of its being an independent nation, when you were born. What was that like?

MS: Well, it is still little bit chaotic, although, you know, I was born in '50s. So we got independence in 1947, so it was little bit chaotic. But still, I think given the political situation in some other countries now, definitely India got stabilized faster than other countries. So I didn't feel a lot of problems in the streets, but still, it's a young democracy, people, they don't know how to really handle the democracy sometime. Suddenly you've got so much to do and so much freedom, so it was kind overwhelming for some of the folks. But I think, overall, India did a good job. Of course, in the beginning there was some chaotic, when Pakistan and India were separated. So definitely, there are some uncertainty in the political situation, but lately it got stabilized. But people in India love freedom, people in India love democracy. That's one thing they really still cherish.


CP: What were some of the aspects of Madras that made it unique from other areas in India? People that don't know India think it's sort of a homogenous, uniform place, but it's certainly not.

MS: Yeah. At least among India, it's very cosmopolitan, I can say. We have a lot of Indians from various regions of India who reside there. One of the uniqueness of Madras is one of the oldest city, and it had some traditions from British, some traditions from Portuguese. And that makes the town very interesting. It's also quite a lot of temples in southern India, in Madras, you'd be really surprised. So people are definitely more religious than some other parts of India. I think that it's true in parts of India too, like in Varanasi and so on, but definitely.

And also southern India has got several languages, so you can hear – like in New York City here – you can listen to Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada. So it's a very different kind of cosmopolitan language system, so that makes it interesting because we have to use English as the link language between all these folks from various states. So that's an advantage for us, actually, so that we could definitely communicate in English from the younger age.

CP: Very different food as well.

MS: Yeah, the food is definitely more spicier than some parts of India, the southern part. But again, it's influenced by other parts of India too.

CP: What was school like for you growing up?

MS: I think, compared to now, since I have a daughter who went to school here, I can tell it's quite primitive. [laughs] And the teachers were very dedicated, there's no doubt about it, but they didn't have the resources to teach sometime. So the parents are definitely, they have to devote more time to educate them in the home, most of the time. So it's something which, I think here we complain about schooling here, so it was an issue, but definitely the teachers tried their best to give a very good education. There's one thing is, there's also a human connection between the teachers and the students and the student families, actually. My dad knows every teacher. Even in the streets, he can meet them and greet them and ask them, "how is my son doing?" So always hope and pray that he says I'm doing well, because otherwise, when I go back home it's not going to be a pretty scene, actually. So I think it is something, the connection definitely helped, but still the resources were limited, actually, in terms of teaching aids and so on.

CP: When did you first become interested in science and what sparked that?

MS: I think probably from the younger age. You know, one of the things really I was very much interested, from the younger age, is minerals. In India we're known for fascination, among Indians, is jewelry, actually. So when I was a young boy, my parents were very fond, my mother was very fond of jewelry, actually. So I always wondered, they buy something that's so expensive, it's very pretty, but other things similar – glass you can make. What are the difference here? So I always ask my parents, "why you spending so much money on this?" Although they could explain the real reason for it, but I was always curious.

So I think that started that way and then the – when I went to high school, I was always interested in the curiosity of playing with chemicals, actually. I used to have this tiny books, very brief books, on scientific experiments. Some of the things you can do it home, some of the things your parents don't want to play with it, actually, even matches they don't want to play with. So I think by observing these things, I always thought, "there should be something more to it that I know now, so I want to know what is it." And it is something which, for me, I'm always fascinating by this minerals, I don't know why. Even the rocks and why the color of the rock, things like that. Because whenever we go – pebbles for example. I'll tell you, I always wonder about the, what is the color of the ocean actually? Why is greenish-blue sometime?


So it's always curiosity. I always had a curiosity about science, although maybe I thought I'm not smart enough to do science, because we always feel that sometime. So much unknown so, oh I'm going to learn this and now I'm going to master this, actually. So in India, most of the favorite subject are mathematics. It's one of the very fond subject for Indians, because they are very good at it. But when it comes to science, there are few, but not as many as mathematicians we had, like Ramanujan and so on. We read about them all the time. So somehow I was always curious about chemistry. Among the subjects I always liked was chemistry. I'm not too fond of physics, but the chemistry in my B.S. time, I thought chemistry is the most fascinating subject for me, actually.

CP: Did you have an expectation of going to college all along? Or was that something that emerged a little bit later.

MS: Actually, I had expectation of going to college. My parents didn't have that because they thought I'm not doing so well in school. But they want me to do it, they are concerned about it. When you're in school you end up devoting time to extracurricular activities more than you subjects, so they were very concerned about it. But they were very surprised I did so well in high school, finally. So I'm sure there was definitely they are, they want me to college, there's no doubt about it. Because they both, my parents, my mom and my dad, both didn't go to university, actually. My mother, I think, stopped at eighth grade and my dad finished only high school.

CP: So you went to the University of Madras. It sounds like you lived at home.

MS: Yes, mostly at home when I was doing my B.S.

CP: Did you start out in chemistry from the very beginning at Madras?

MS: Yes. Among the B.S., when I was doing my B.S., I take three subjects. One is math, physics and chemistry major. I couldn't go to the biology; I couldn't go to the economics. But this was an assigned subject which was chemistry, physics and math. Among the three, I really enjoy doing chemistry. I did very well in chemistry, I know that very well, because I always enjoyed even taking exams in chemistry rather than physics and math.

CP: What was the environment like for you at the university?

MS: The university is mostly, we had mostly classes. We had a very limited lab, which was kind of disappointing for me at that time. We had some labs, very primitive, very preliminary experiments we did, actually. When I was doing my B.S., the amount of time I devoted to the lab is much less than what I would like, actually. As a professor now, I always hear the undergraduate lab experience is so important, actually, which I didn't have that much. That has nothing to do with, it was just matter, the country is still developing, we didn't have all the resources we need to put the students in the lab.

But still, I was always interested in chemistry. Even I used to, during the B.S., I used to make volcanos by mixing potassium permanganate with glycerin and see what would happen. I still remember I did one on the train, on the moving train, I did that, and I got in trouble, actually. To show other students. Because I take a subway going from home to college, actually, I did it on the way home and people are not happy, actually.

CP: You made a volcano on the train?

MS: Yes, small volcano. You can put a potassium permanganate from the lab and then put some glycerin, which is available easily to get, actually. It will oxidize and immediately it just forms a fume, actually. I'll never forget that, actually, I was nearly thrown over the train, actually, by other passengers thinking I'm making a fire, actually.

CP: Well, outside of this sort of scarcity that you've referenced, were there other ways that the mode of education in India for a college student – was it substantially different from what we would be expecting here in the U.S.? The ways that the college students are taught? Or was it pretty similar?

MS: It was somewhat similar, but the classes are very small. Even in B.S., my class size were about eighty, maybe, maximum in a class. So I never seen a class size more than seventy, eighty, but when I come here, I see the classes can be 200, 250. I always wonder how the teacher can see how the students are learning. One of the interesting thing when I was a student was, the professor, when he or she teaches, they can look at every student. If some student is sleeping or not doing things, they can throw a chalk at them, saying that, that happened all the time. But here, 200 student, I see some students are texting. So it's just kind of different; it must be. Maybe it was like that before here, but now when I see the classes, it's quite different the way that the teacher devote amount of time to individual students and how they do it.


CP: During your undergraduate years, were you involved in any extracurricular activities? Or was it mostly study?

MS: Mostly studying and playing cricket. That's one of the things I did most of the time. And the other things I used to do is, I was very curious about books. I couldn't get all the books, there wasn't a big library system when I was in college. So I used to go to two places, which is, I think, one of the advantages of living in a big city, you have a lot of embassies. I used to go to British Consul, which is part of the British Embassy, consulate, and also go to the USIS library, which is the United States Information System. Which is not very far, about three kilometers, from my home. So I take a bike, you know, bicycle, and then I just cycle and go there and read. Because there are a lot of interesting thing I learned about U.S. especially, by going to USIS. So I think that definitely kind of expanded my knowledge quite a bit, when I was doing my B.S. Because we didn't have all the books. The libraries really collections are very limited, actually, in this college that I studied.

CP: Do you remember having an ambition to live overseas someday?

MS: Yes. During my final year of my B.S., one of my determination is to go for a Ph.D. and then go abroad. I don't know where I'm going to go, but I can tell you the story how it – it's very fascinating to me, at least, how I came here.

CP: Yeah, well we'll get to that in a second, but you got the master's degree first, is that correct?

MS: Yeah. Now in India in those days, you can't do a Ph.D. without a masters, so I did a masters for two years and then I moved on to Ph.D.

CP: How did you decide that you wanted to pursue graduate studies?

MS: Well, one of my mentor when I was a kid was my cousin, who she is a brilliant mathematician, which is my mother's sister's daughter, actually. And she was suffering from polio, and so she could not do science; it was very hard for her, when you have a handicap, it's not easy to do that. So she decided to do the math. So finally, she ended up finishing up Ph.D. in Ramanujan Institute and she knows my interest in science and she always said, "you should do Ph.D. It's something you will excel." So always in my mind, I wanted a Ph.D. in chemistry. That is something which I remember, from the day of my B.S. I said, "I want to go on after the Ph.D." There is no limit for studying. Even my parents thought, "how many years are you going to study?" But, you know, that is something which I always wanted to do, actually. Because I've seen people do these, more like free-lance thinking, which, when you go to a job in India, pretty much you are conformed to what they do, actually. But here, they can do what they want to do. So one of the things I always wanted that, freedom to think and freedom to do what I want to do.

CP: Well, so you got the master's at Madras, what was the research that you did as a master's candidate?

MS: Mostly my master's candidate was mostly analytical chemistry. The lab is mostly geared towards analyzing the metals and analyzing the alloys and analyzing the minerals – how to dissolve minerals in acid and what are the elements present. So mostly it's an analytical-oriented research I did when I was my master's degree. But it is not a very anything earth-shaking I did doing masters, it is simply a routine analysis of materials, actually, by using analytical methods.

CP: Was there somebody who sort of steered you in that direction?

MS: There was yeah, Professor Agnes Pal, I think she's no more now. I still remember that she was the person who taught mineral chemistry for us. As I told you, I was raised as a mineralist, so she became my close mentor and then I worked with her and I can do this type of work if I'm interested, actually. So I thought it was a great opportunity; that's what I did.


CP: Did you do any teaching during this period?

MS: Only lab teaching; we don't do any classroom teaching, only the lab. If you're a second year master's student, you can do. First year master's or final year B.S., we do lab. Mostly it's like helping the instructor set up experiments and so on, just like they do here. But we did not do any recitations and so on. That was only reserved for faculty members.

CP: Well you completed your master's degree and you went to the Indian Institute of Technology, is that correct?

MS: Yes.

CP: And that's in New Delhi?

MS: No.

CP: No? Ok.

MS: There are five Indian Institutes of Technology in India in those days. After we got independence, Jawaharlal Nehru was our first prime minister. He decided that he would like to start a higher learning education in India, so he sought help from various countries, actually. IIT-Chennai, now it's called, IIT-Madras, was actually in collaboration with Germany, whereas the IIT-Bombay was in collaboration with United States. So he seeked help for five institutions. Those five institutions counted as the MIT and Harvard of India in those days, because it's very difficult to get into those schools. So it was just across the campus from where I did my masters, University of Madras, so I applied for going into the Chemistry department, but it is a tough competition. As you now, in India, everything is – if you have twenty students you are going to admit, there are going to be 10,000 applications. So we had to compete and then we have to have a written exam and an oral exam, and finally I got into IIT.

That's where really my research began, because that is an institution where I have the resources and I have teachers who are mentors who can help me to develop my curiosity, actually.

CP: Yeah, it seems like you thrived there.

MS: Yes. My professor – I was so lucky to join with a professor who just came back from a post-doctoral fellow from IBM, International Business Machines, as you know very well. So he came with a lot of expectations, he's going to develop a big program, and I was his first student. He's also interested in developing this Materials Chemistry program, because he did most of his work in materials chemistry. So that is something which I consider as a lucky break. I got to work with a professor – his name is G.V. Subba Rao – he actually is the person who really, I can say, at the beginning of my research career, he helped me with my research career.

In addition to, I made several discoveries as a Ph.D. student, one of the things he made me to do is to write a 150-page review on the subject I was working on. That article still counts as the Bible in the field of oxides based on pyrochlores. I think without that article, I might not have been known outside as a student, because that article has been, so far, cited 1,500 times. Which I wrote as a student and was published in 1982.

CP: Yeah, and this was your thesis, is that correct?

MS: Yep. It is the introduction to my thesis – 100+ pages.

CP: The introduction?

MS: Introduction to the thesis. That introduction was published as a single issue of a journal called Progress in Solid State Chemistry. But now, I'm the editor of the journal.

CP: Wow. Well, tell me a little bit more about that work. You mentioned pyrochlores, is that how it's pronounced?

MS: Yes. Pyrochlores are minerals, or you'd say it's a class of materials which has got a certain chemical formula. And normally what happens is when you have a mineral which exists in nature, you can create artificial ones by simply substituting one atom for another atom, actually. So but then you can change the property of materials; you can turn the properties of the materials by knowing the crystal structure of the mineral and then how you can make substitutions. And then you can create new materials, which you can, if you want to make a convector, you can make an insulator, or you want to make a catalyst. You can do it by simply adjusting the chemical composition which are wrapped in the same structure.


So the pyrochlores minerals – so my thesis is based on creating new materials based on pyrochlores. That is because the pyrochlores minerals are not well-explored at that time. So I was, again, I was given the opportunity to work in the area where I could make a lot of contribution as a student.

CP: Were you learning new laboratory techniques that were important to this?

MS: Oh, several actually, yeah. Even the synthesis, we have to go to very high temperatures, like 1,500 degrees, 1,600 degrees Celsius, and also we have to learn how to characterize them, so it's a lot of new techniques I learned during this research.

CP: So you met Abraham Clearfield during this time, is that correct?

MS: Yes. That's why I said my career is interesting. I was doing my fourth year Ph.D. student, he visited my lab from College Station, Texas, and he was in my lab because there was an Indo-U.S. conference on rare earth materials. Pyrochlores do have a rare earth, actually. He visited my lab and one of the fortunate things for us is whenever an eminent scientist visited from U.S. or England, we got a chance to see them, because IIT was one of the best institutions in India, they visit there. So I met him for about fifteen minutes in the lab, I showed him everything around – that's what we do, normally, show him around. So he saw my enthusiasm and I was just my fourth year, just doing my final experiments. He said, "why don't you come and post-doc to my lab." It was kind of shocking to me, because normally people apply for a post-doc are not easy to get.

But in India the culture is, you cannot simply say, "ok, I can do it." No. I have to ask my professor first, "am I ready to go?" So I went and ask him and he said, "oh, you can go, but you need to wait for some time here, we have a little more things." My professor also, I can say that he's also worried that if I leave early, then he's leaving one of the student who was productive, so he wants me to work on it for some more time. So finally they both came to a compromise and then I end up going there after a year. So I did not apply for a post-doc. And then, so I gave the word that I will go; I will go to Texas, College Station, Texas.

CP: Tell me about that adjustment. I mean, you had spent most of your life at home and now you're on the other side of the world in a very different place.

MS: You know, in those days there were no Google Maps. I can't look up what College Station, Texas even look like, where I'm going, actually. The only thing I did was, since I go to USIS, I went to the library and then read about Texas, College Station, about the history of this whole place, actually. One more thing that happened was, when I was in India as a student, I would go to a lot of movies. Every Indian watches movies more than anything else. One of the movies I enjoyed watching was the Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. I watched nearly four of them when I was a student, which were very popular in India. I think it was pretty much popular all over the world, actually, because that's why Clint Eastwood got his name first. They used to always talk about, in those movies, Texas. Although the movie was taken in Spain mostly, it was always taken in Texas, about the Rio Grande river and how you cross. So I'd always seen that, so I was fascinated with Texas; I always read about cowboy culture.

And it is, to me, an amazing experience, because when I landed in College Station, it's a tiny town. The first thing I saw was the football stadium. To me, it was surprising, actually. That a town which contains 40,000 people can hold a stadium which can hold nearly 65,000 people, actually. In India, no college has a sports stadium. Even a city stadium is not as big as that, actually. So I always thought, when my professor picked me up – Clearfield picked me up – from the airport, the first thing I asked was, "what is so big?" And he said, "well, you'll see when the football game," the town population swelled to 200, 300,000, actually. So that was, to me, a fascinating shock, because in India we are crazy about sports, cricket and so on. But then I came to the understanding that at the colleges here, the sports are so important. So some kind of an adjustment, which is interesting because what is an unknown. Now days, if I go to another country, I just look at the Google Map and say where I'm going to stay, which hotel I'm going to way, I'm going to walk in the street. I don't have any clue where I was going, actually, so that is something which probably, it's like a Lewis and Clark expedition where they don't know what they're going to encounter. The same thing for me, actually.


CP: Well, how about the work that you did under Clearfield?

MS: It was quite different from the work I did in Madras. Most of my work there was involving materials for batteries. In those days, the battery was something called sodium sulfur battery, which General Motors are interested in for the mobile systems. So one of the area I worked on something called NASICONs, which is the sodium zirconium phosphate. Professor Clearfield was an expert in zirconium phosphate chemistry, that's one of the reason he got his grant from NSF, to work on this. So that was a project that was worked on. But since he told me that what I was going to work on, I was well-prepared what I want to do in the field, actually. One of the good thing that happened was, I read all these papers so I could start immediately as soon as I went to the lab.

CP: And it was a good fit for you?

MS: Fantastic. The name Mas is not my real first name, actually. I have a long first name and a long middle name and a long last name. In India, they called M.A.S.; he was the first person to call me Mas, because he said, "I don't want to call like initial, can I make that as a name? Because it's easier for me to say it." So that's the name that stuck, finally. So it's been good to me so far. [laughs] I can say that.

CP: Well, by the end of this time period in College Station, had you decided that you wanted to stay in the U.S.?

MS: Yes. Professor Clearfield always told me that I should stay here because I'll do well and still you can collaborate with the Indian scientists. You can do a contribution to India by having interactions with them. So he thought, I'm so enthusiastic and I'm so eager to do things, he said, "this a good place for you if you want to stay." So he recommended me to National Science Foundation to see whether I can get a green card as an outstanding scientist. That's how I got my green card. I didn't have a job; I didn't get a job to get my green card. So the NSF sent it to five experts to see. So I got a letter from NSF which I still keep it, because that's one of the letters I will never forget, because that letter said what I can do for this country, actually, yes. So why I should stay in this country. So the State Department recommended to the immigration folks why I should stay here.

CP: You matriculated to DuPont, but was there a time period in between A&M and DuPont? Or did you go straight there?

MS: No. Again, I never applied for a job in my life. That is something; I don't know why it happened. The interesting thing is, there was – I'll tell you why the connection to OSU also afterwards. I went to Gordon Research Conference, which is very famous conference for chemists, mostly for chemists. I know DuPont work very well because DuPont worked a lot on pyrochlores. So when I was in the conference, I met Professor Sleight.

CP: Arthur Sleight, yeah.

MS: Arthur Sleight. He met me in a Gordon Conference and he knows all about my work. Not only in India but what I did with Professor Clearfield, because he has seen all the papers I've published with him, because I published eighteen papers as a post-doc. So he has seen that. And then after talking to him, the first question he asked me was, "are you interested in working for DuPont?" Knowing all this work, DuPont work, during thesis days, believe me or not – people may not even believe, I'm just making it up – I dreamt of working for DuPont when I was a student, because my work is so related to DuPont work. Then I realized it afterwards.

DuPont was trying to develop a product called thick-film resistors, used on the compositions I made in my thesis that I published, which I didn't have patent in those days, I didn't know how to file a patent in those days. So, which is a pyrochlore containing molybdenum, a metal in the periodic table. So that is the same composition they were trying to develop as a thick-film resistor, because it's cheaper than the ruthenium they were using. That I came to know only after I went there, actually, I didn't know because they didn't tell me that when I wasn't there.


So I gave a talk and then I was told that I'd be getting an offer. So I came back and I got an offer from them. To me, I couldn't believe it actually. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time...most of my career actually, I think.

CP: Well, you were there for twenty-two years and you were very prolific. You want to tell me the progression of your work at DuPont? You published a lot, had many patents.

MS: Yeah. I joined a group headed by Professor Sleight; Art was our group leader. The first project I was given was trying to make substrate materials for electronic circuits. So within six months, I could come up with a process for making these ceramics by using materials called zeolites, which we filed a patent. So that attracted a lot of attention in the ceramic industry. So DuPont immediately recognized that I could contribute quickly and then they were very happy.

Then came the superconductors. So I was asked to shift the focus to more superconductors. Arthur Sleight was very prolific in superconductors, this area, so we decided to start a program on superconductors to see if we could make new superconductors with higher and higher temperature. So that started.

And then that was the time, I pretty much slept in the lab, mostly. My wife has to bring food. And maybe a few of us slept in the lab, mostly, and took a shower in the shower, because we had a shower in every building, actually, at DuPont, so we did that. And then because we were competing with Bell Laboratories and competing with IBM and competing with many folks, so we end up doing a lot of work. And one year those published thirty-eight papers on semiconductors and other areas. It's a crazy time. I don't think I want to go back and live the same life, but it was a fascinating time. It came at the right time because I was young and I could, for me, I can spend all the time in the lab; it doesn't bother me, actually.

CP: I have notes here on a couple of things that you worked on; we mentioned the superconductors. Magnetic materials for spin electronics?

MS: Yeah, one of the other areas I worked on was trying to create materials which we can – normally we use a charge in a material to do the functions in electronics, but electronics also has got a spin with its charge. So we are wondering whether the spin can be manipulated to make some devices. So that's one of the area that I worked on.

And during that time, I discovered an area called colossal dielectrics; it was in 2000. We found a material – calcium copper titanium oxide – which is still been very popular subject; people are doing a lot of research on it. Again, it was kind of an aspect – I was studying electrical properties of many materials and this one happened to have an extremely dielectric constant, which is never known before. So still today, the origin for the high dielectric amount aren't fully understood. So there were 1,500 papers appeared after I published first paper in a simple journal, kind of a journal in our field, Journal of Solid State Chemistry. Not in Science or Nature. I have published several papers in Science and Nature, but this is a very simple journal I published and now it is the most, one of the widely cited paper in this field, actually.

CP: How about greener synthetic routes for fluoro-organics?

MS: Oh, that was a very interesting discovery. I'm not an organic chemist. I didn't have really a lot of interest in organic chemistry. One of the reason I'm not really into the organic chemistry, not because I don't like chemistry, they only play with three or four elements. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sometime nitrogen. But there was a challenge at that time in DuPont: is it possible to make fluoroaromatics, like fluorobenzene, which is used for many, the starting chemicals for many of the materials such as fungicides and herbicides and drugs, you know, pharmaceutical drugs. So there was a kind of challenge from the organic chemists, no one can do it.


So when I heard that in one of the meetings, I came back to my lab and I told my tech, Tom Kalaris [?], "there is something here. Maybe we can take an inorganic fluoride and react with this organic to create fluorochemicals, actually." So I didn't have the knowledge about organic chemistry, but I went and ask some other men in organic chemistry at DuPont, and they all said, "oh, it won't work," and all those things. I simply said, "ok, let me take the CRC Handbook," that's the chemical handbook, and then I went to the oxidoreduction of many of the elements and found out that some elements may be able to oxidize from incorporating fluorine into the organic. So finally, I choose to work with thulium fluoride and copper fluoride, and then I Tom that, "what if we just take the copper fluoride that is available in average, let's just heat the benzene vapors, oh, at 300 degrees." To me, heating a sample at 300 degrees is nothing, because I normally make the samples at 1,500 degrees Celsius. So I say, "ok, let's try." And then he tried 300 and nothing happened. Around 350 to 400 he said, "wow, there's something happening, because I see the GC mass spec shows fluoro-organics coming out, actually."

So we finally, it happened to be a select formation of fluorobenzene, which could only be made by a reaction called Balz-Schiemann Reaction before, which is a very difficult reaction to do. That's why DuPont was looking for a direct synthesis of fluoroaromatics from the benzene; it's a very cheap chemical actually, it's based from the refinements of gasoline, actually. So finally we found it. Even organic chemists couldn't believe at first, so they came our lab, and I can remember they were surprised actually, how select what we were doing was. So again, kind of a curiosity, why not try a totally different method people are not working on, actually? So we got a patent – we got several patents on that – and finally DuPont did try to license those things to other companies, although the details, I was not sure what exactly happened in the end because we had left, of course.

And it was 2002 and we got a patent and we published in Science, actually, "greener methods for making fluoroaromatics." Which is kind of surprised the whole scientific community, because the beginning, they saw my name attached to the paper, everybody thought, "oh, Mas is working on this?" because it had nothing to do with peroxides, pyrochlores, oxides, "why are you doing that?" And in the beginning, people didn't even know that's me, actually, they thought some other name with a similar initials, actually. So it was, to me, one of the discoveries – I think this clearly shows, when I teach here in solid state chemistry, I always tell them how easy to think from one field to another field, as far as you understand basic chemistry you learn as an undergraduate – oxidation-reduction potential. The whole idea came from CRC Handbook. I didn't go to organic textbooks at all, actually. So even when I consider papers, only one paper in Science I wrote with the equations of why I choose that copper fluoride, actually, that's all I did.

CP: That must have been very satisfying.

MS: Oh, very satisfying. I still remember the face – Tom, my tech, face, and my face – we were like, "is it real?" [laugh] You don't know if it's real or not, you always got to be careful because when you create a discovery like that, you got to make sure that you repeat many times before you tell the outside world that you have done it. Especially in a company, because they don't want to believe anything until you show that it's definitely true, actually. The reputation of the company is on the line.

CP: Well, that segues into my next question. I'm interested in knowing more about the environment at DuPont, what that was like.

MS: Oh, it was the time where – the way DuPont operated in those days was mostly curiosity-driven research. Of course, you had to work on areas of interest to DuPont, but they have given us quite a lot of freedom to work on the areas which would be of interest to DuPont. So I don't need to ask permission to do something like, "well, I want to do fluorobenzene reaction, can I try?" No. You try, because you have colleagues who have labs who can try in their lab, so the environment was extremely collaborative. Of course, sometime we can be a little bit of tense because, like in Bell Labs, everybody is smart, everybody is good. So you have to really put your ideas and people aren't accepting. That's one good thing about it, because that really kind of filter the shortcomings of your discoveries sometimes. They'll ask questions: "Why not? How do you know this is happening?" So you did not – as a professor you are pretty much on your own here, you choose. You may have collaborators outside actually, but within the department, we don't have that much critical assessment of others' research, actually. But in DuPont, it was always – sometimes you feel like they don't like you maybe, that kind of a deal, actually. It comes to that point.


But it is good because – and also that, one thing I don't exactly know how it is done now, the reason I was so happy to go to DuPont, because I've seen that happening, I've seen Sleight's discovery actually, what he has done. So one of the things DuPont believed was by playing with, doing the lab, you discovered things. Most of the discovery did come planned, actually – Teflon, nylon – several of the major discoveries which made billions for the company in those days, did not come from planned research. So they always say, give them the freedom. You know, not everybody gets the same freedom, but people who can contribute, you can do that. I had that luxury of having the freedom in the lab, because I have shown from the beginning, I can do that, actually. They were very happy to give that freedom, actually.

So that is something which, I think, not easy to come by now days. Because more and more, quite a bit of restrictions in doing the research, because I always say, the administrators, they don't want to hear that you are going to discover something. You are going to test them; you're going to market. They want something quickly, the market. So that culture has changed quite a bit. As you know, Bell Labs, the example actually. So most of this giant industrial labs in the U.S., which used to have a huge R and D, now they have more focused R and D. They do have R and D, they have a lot of activities which most focus on how to keep the business going or how to come up with new businesses. And to some extent, there is also a culture now that they are looking at the universities to make discoveries, they can always go license the technology that is essential for them, actually.

Or it can be a start-up company that has done something already. So take up the start-up company and develop it, actually. Probably much more easy than those days where you make the discovery, you try to understand the discovery, try to do science behind it, make a scale of the process, and the finally see if it going to happen or not. That's always answered already. Any steps can fail, actually, and then you end up spending a lot of time on it. But now, there is the less stress when you go to the start-up companies and already they have done some of, at least, the basic groundwork so there's a good chance it's going to succeed.

CP: What did you think of the East Coast?

MS: You mean, versus the West Coast? Or just the East Coast?

CP: Well, the East Coast of the United States. You spent some time in Texas and then you went to a very different part of the country.

MS: Oh, it is more busy life – particularly with family and so on, it was a busy life. And people don't have time, like my brother, as much as in Texas. I really enjoy the pace of the Texas; it's definitely a bit slower than in East Coast. But that happened in Madras. Since I grew up in Madras, which is a big city – population is more than Philadelphia – so it's definitely something which I could manage, no problem. Even in DuPont, I spent most of the time in the lab. I had an interesting experience at DuPont, because I didn't have many extracurricular activities when I was in the company, because one of the things that I enjoyed going to the lab, even in the company, I used to go weekends too. There's no restriction on going to lab on weekends. As long as you have somebody else next to you working with you or a tech person there.

So one of the things, when I got an award in DuPont, it's called a Charles Pedersen Award, it was given during the dinnertime at a hotel called TechCon conference, they gave me. But the person who is trying to research what else I do, [laughs] he couldn't see that much. Then I thought I have to come up with some funny thing, so I said, "now my wife and my daughter both are black belt, so I'd rather spend at lab than at home, mostly. So lab is my sanctuary where I go there and nobody argue with me and I don't have to worry about getting hurt." So I just make fun of it. So I spent most my time in lab at DuPont, which everybody in the company knows it. I enjoyed it. People can call that you don't have a life if you do that, it's not true. It's all what you enjoy you do. Some people can enjoy doing other things, but I always enjoyed going to the lab. Even if I don't have any other thing, I walk around the lab will inspire me to think of something.


CP: Well, in 2006 you got another job you didn't apply for at Oregon State University.

MS: [laughs] Yes, it's interesting, because Arthur Sleight used to be a consultant for DuPont, but that is because I have asked to be a consultant for DuPont, I had that luxury of asking to interview. Then one day, he was sitting there in 2004 and he said, "you know Mas, I think I'm retiring soon."

CP: So he had been at OSU, Sleight had.

MS: Yeah, he was at OSU already for fifteen years. I had visited him maybe ten, fifteen times when he was a professor, from DuPont. So we had a very close collaboration, actually. So he asked me the question, then I said – what happens was, when he came as the Milton Harris Chair, I was asked by the Chemistry department, I would like to follow him as a professor, actually. Because he suggested, "maybe we can bring Mas here." But to be honest, I don't want to do it that say. So I told Doug Keszler at that time, I still remember, "one day, who knows, Art may retire and I may come in this place." And then Art Sleight asked me, "are you interested in this position?" I said, "of course." But there were a lot of other universities that approached me to see if I would be interested in joining their institutions.

Then, finally, I told him yes. It was in 2004, I visited a couple of times. But they had to come up with a start-up package and things to fulfill my needs, and also salary. Because at the company you do get good salary. So finally they come up with quite a bit of thing, working with ONAMI and others, so they come up with that. So at the time, I already had an offer from UC-Irvine, which they know very well. So I had to choose between various universities and finally I chose to come here, because I know this place very well and I know some of the faculty members already here. So I thought it will be a good fit for me. And Art says he's going to be around too, so I thought would be great for us to continue to do work, if we can. Even as emeritus, he can come and work with our group. That's what he's doing now, so it all worked out well.

CP: So that connection with Sleight was really what brought you here?

MS: Well, it had been thirty – how many years? 1984. So it has been thirty-one years now, we have known each other.

CP: I would imagine the environment; you were familiar with it but it was still very different from DuPont.

MS: Yes, it was quite different when I first came here. One of the things, I prepared for it since I know this place well and I know what Art went through to set up his lab. In fact, I helped him to set up a lab, part of it, so I know it takes time and effort, and the resources are limited compared to the industry where, if something breaks, you can just call in a shop or something to do it, you don't even know who's paying for it. But it is not the same. So one of the things I always though, the infrastructure for developing a lab is much easier in industry and in university, because it takes more time. You can still do it; I have a very good lab now and I think OSU did a great job of getting that lab to the shape where it really very good.

The standard of the lab is similar to what DuPont had – lot of safety features. Because of the things I learn a lot in DuPont Company was how to be safe when you doing the experiments, you don't just do it like a kid, I did when I was on the train. You don't do that. So I learn a lot in DuPont, one of the things is safety is number one priority. They always said, "your discovery has no meaning for us if you aren't going to do it safely, because that just takes away everything if you aren't safe."

CP: How was the adjustment to Corvallis?

MS: We lived in College Station before, it's not a big adjustment. I like small towns in some respects because, probably living in East Coast for quite some time. So I thought this would be a little bit slow pace and I'll have enough time to enjoy the nature. One of the things I like about this place is it's a beautiful surroundings, unlike Wilmington, Delaware. It's a very nice place too, actually, but definitely a change. So my family, we like it very much.


CP: What were your initial duties when you came here? What was your job? Because you were straight research at DuPont, but I'm guessing you had to do some teaching here, is that correct?

MS: Yes, first when I came here, first two years, I was given to develop the lab. Because lab, pretty from scratch, I had to do everything. So I spend first year developing the whole lab, actually. So I used do everything in the lab – cleaning the lab, everything I did, actually. Because for me it was not a big deal, because it's my place, I'm going to be here for a long time. I made the decision when I came here. So I want the lab to be what I like, so I decided to spend a lot of time on setting up the lab.

And then teaching, I know sometimes when you come from industry, people think what your teaching skills are? Because you don't teach. But teaching comes from inherently – if you're enthusiastic about what you do, you can convey that to students. That is teaching to me. I passionately teach because that's what I like, what I do, actually. So it's not like I'm doing it for, "oh gosh, I have to go and teach," no, I love and enjoy teaching to students. And my teaching is not from textbooks, mostly. One of the things I decided to do was, I want to teach from the practical way of how I learned the subject and what is important to learn. Every class I teach, what I did – because I teach solid state chemistry – every class I teach, there is some connection to what I did in research, actually. It can be magnetism, it can be electrical properties, it can be catalysis, it can be thermoelectrics. I worked on nearly every area actually, so I can give how I thought about this problem based on what I learned, actually. So my students are very very – and other students, a lot of people told me, "this is the best class I ever had," because you can bring the industrial experience and teach the fundamentals, and how the fundamentals are used to make things which we use sometimes today.

CP: Well, we know that Sleight's been important to you, were there other OSU people that have been important to you? Other colleagues?

MS: Yes. Definitely Douglas Keszler is a real respected faculty in our department, as you know very well, he is currently our director. And he was very enthusiastic in me coming here. I think he could convince the department, he became chair of the department when I was hired here, actually. He convinced the department why I should come here, why I should be here. So even today, we collaborate, we publish papers together. So we have a very close friend, colleague, and also a mentor.

CP: Well, you spent a year setting up your lab, what was the research that you started once you arrived at Oregon State?

MS: The program first I started was – one thing I have to do in the university, I would write a proposal to get money. That is something I've never done before in my life. In industry, you tell your manager and say, "I want to work on it," you send a one-page write-up why it is important and we should work on, what are the connection DuPont has. So we did that. But here, I have to convince not OSU that I can do research, I have to convince some reviewers who are going to review proposal. Fortunately, I published a lot of papers before I came here, people know me very well, actually. But still, that is something I have to learn a little bit because there is a time I could talk to a lot of colleagues and what is important, what is not important. Although I reviewed proposals for NSF. As a company employee, we were allowed to review in those days, proposals, provided the proposal has got something which connected with what DuPont is doing. If it's not of interest, they don't want you to do that. So we did that.

So I'm aware of the proposal format. But to convince what research you're going to do is novel enough, I fortunately came with a proposal to work on the spin electronics and multiferroics, that's one of the proposal I wrote that brought interest, and I was fortunate to get that funded, actually, first time I tried, actually.

CP: A continuation of what you had been doing at DuPont.

MS: Yeah, somewhat of a continuation. The ideas are similar, but some of the new things I want to try. Because the students have to understand, you can't do problems which – in DuPont, the resources were unlimited, actually. If I wanted to do something, I can make a materials under very high extreme pressures, you know, there's a pressure lab in DuPont. I can't do it here in OSU. So I have to design the projects in such a way that we can accomplish quickly something here, because student has got a finite number of years, he wants to spend time with me to get a Ph.D. and he want to go on. So I have to worry about the future. So I have to be realistic in doing problems, unlike DuPont, I can't say, "well, if it doesn't work, so what?" Definitely have to get at least the scientific part works.


CP: Well, in 2009 your work shifted a little bit by accident. Tell me the story of what happened.

MS: Well, my first student, Andrew Smith, he was my first student. Students come and meet you and talk to you, he came and talked to me and said, "I'm interested in what you do." Then I asked him, "what is your background?" He said, "marine biology." I said, "what?" Because in India, it's not easy for a marine biologist to go to material science and work with a guy who's working on solid state chemistry. And then I said, "are you sure? Do you know I don't work on this area?" I said, "I'm a vegetarian, I don't eat fish. So are you sure you want to do this?" He said, "the reason I want to do it is, because all the faculty members I've talked to, you are very enthusiastic, what you do. So I thought maybe that will give me enough encouragement to work on the area which may be new to me, but I can contribute, I think."

So we finally started this work. And then I put him in the project which is funded by NSF, and he was an extremely hard working student. And he finally – I asked him to try something, pitch-in work, he was a little disappointed. But one of the things I do, even today, I go to the lab all the time. First thing when I come from home, to campus, first thing I go to the lab. I leave my bag in my office and I go to see what happened. Anything students have done something yesterday or the previous day, anything that they did, and have they missed something.

So when I went in there, I saw this materials which showed this brilliant blue colors, actually. I immediately said, "Andrew, what is going on here? I thought I asked you to make the yttrium indium manganese oxide? It shouldn't be this color." I said, "that's why I tell you, because you said it could be a gray or black maybe, because manganese oxides are black." But this is what he got, [holds up glass container filled with blue powder] this is the sample he got coming out of the furnace which, even today, I could not believe that. When I saw the color, I couldn't believe it. But I know, DuPont had a big pigment industry in those days, they have a big pigment division. I heard somewhere, it ring my bell, that blue compounds are difficult to make. And the nature don't make blue. Most of the blue you see in birds and so on, they are not really pigment colors, they're all structural colors. So immediately I said, "this may not be the interesting multiferroic," because it didn't work as a multiferroic, it was still electronic. "I think we should approach this as a new color pigment which probably we've never seen."

So this is the crystal structure [holds up molecular model] we found to make this multiferroic or spin electronic material, which is a bit unusual structure, actually. Which containing manganese in this environment of five atoms of oxygen around it. We call this a trigonal bipyramid. And so this is not – the structure is not well studied compared to other structures. It's not a mineral, this is an artificially made compound actually, but not well studied. So the interest for us to do multiferroics, because of the manganese being magnetic and also it's ferroelectric, so you can combine those two to form a multiferroic. That's what we try, we do. We take yttrium indium oxide, which is ferroelectric, yttrium manganese oxide, which is ferromagnetic, we mix it and that's what we created. But finally, it didn't work the way it's supposed to work and finally we end up making this blue pigments.

And we can modify the color. One of the interesting thing that happened was, when you tried to modify the indium and manganese in this structure, we could change the intensity of the blue color, from a very light blue to an intense blue to nearly black. So that is not done in the pigment industry. Normally, when you want to create a tint, you mix either black or white, to give a tint. But in this case, we're changing the crystal structure, we can change the color.


So I understood quite a bit as soon as I thought – at the beginning, people thought, "what is the big deal about blue?" Because color is color and we see blue everywhere. So I know, I heard that blue is the most difficult to make and the last blue discovered was in 1802, which is cobalt blue, which is a mineral called cobalt spinel actually, spinel is the structure, like mineral structure. If you put cobalt in this structure, you can get beautiful blue color, actually. That was discovered in 1802 and people have been trying to make a blue pigment, no one succeeded in making a stable blue pigment. The reason – a lot of people ask me this question, why this blue is so special? The reason it is special because, this blue is very similar to the blue painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Those days, in the medieval times, the only blue pigment available was lapis lazuli, which has to come from Afghanistan. Today it's considered more expensive than gold. So when you want to paint the Sistine Chapel, the pope at that time didn't want to use so much money to paint it blue, they wanted to use Prussian Blue, which is known; Egyptian Blue, which is known. But they are more greenish-blue. But this is more reddish-blue. So since lapis lazuli is used because of the reddish tinge of the bright blue, that's why Michelangelo said, "if you don't give me the lapis lazuli, I won't paint 'The Last Judgement'." Because "The Last Judgement" is very bright and very beautiful blue, actually.

So when Shepherd Color Company tested this pigment, the first thing they said was, "we like this blue very much because it is a blue which is like ultramarine," which is the thing with lapis lazuli, which is very unstable. Lapis lazuli has no metals, it only containing sulfur as the thermal floor, so it can easily decompose. But this compound is made at 1,000 degrees Celsius plus, so this is extremely stable but the same property as ultramarine. So that's why it attract a lot of attention.

And then finally, to top it off, this blue also can show a lot of reflection in the infrared region. That means, it can actually block the solar heat or it can reflect back. So for the roofing industry, it's a big thing. Like in California, they have a minimum reflectivity in the rules because of the energy-saving nature of these pigments. So normally the best way to reflect heat is to make a white pigment. White will definitely reflect because the titanium dioxide is used as a white pigment. It will reflect nearly ninety percent of the solar radiation. This reflects even close to that, actually, although it is a blue color. That makes it good because cobalt blue, which absorbs heat, whereas the manganese blue, which we see here, it actually reflects heat because of the absorbtion spectra of this crystal structure with this composition. That's why it becomes such a popular thing.

Again, I did not design this. This is, to me, the beauty of science. That's why I go to the lab, myself, personally, because I enjoy this. If we can predict everything – what we can design, what we can make – then it's not fun anymore. To me, you go there because you feel like, "my God, I don't even know how to do this," then you try a lot of crazy things and then finally wind up creating something which a lot of people are looking for but they could not create. Sometimes people think, "so what, you were lucky." It's not luck. Luck only favors the alert mind, which is a famous quote by Louis Pasteur who said, you know, people don't just make discoveries because they had luck. You've got to put some thought into it. We call it sagacity. Sagacity is extremely important, actually, to do it. So that happened. That is something I learned, to be honest, from DuPont. Because they believe that. People can make discoveries which we are not looking for. It has happened. Several Nobel Prizes have been won for the discoveries which they didn't plan. So this is, you know, there's a famous word, serendipity. I think this happens in science more than we think and, unfortunately, we don't appreciate it as much and we don't teach them to the young kids. This is what all science involves.


You know, I always tell my students, "failure is an option when you do research." If you can't take failure, you can't do research, because most of the experiments will be a failure. If you know how to do it, then why are you even doing it? Somebody's already done it or you can do it one day and walk away, it's over. The fact that you are even going to the lab and keep trying and doing things, that is because you don't know what direction to go sometimes to make this happen, although you have some basic ideas from the books and basic knowledge. But the surprises happen, actually. So this is something which I teach my students. From the beginning, when they come into my lab, I said, "I'll give you a problem for you to do. That doesn't mean that it'll end up being your thesis topic, actually. Because this is what we're going to explore, that's going to take-" I always say, when you're driving anywhere, suddenly you see things and you won't stop. It's because you thought, "my God, this is interesting, and I would have thought wouldn't even exist." Same thing happens most of the time, I always say, "the journey is more important than the destination," because when you take a journey, you don't know what the destination may be sometimes, but if you don't take the journey, you won't see anything towards the destination. So the research is the same way.

I think, to me, this is the best thing happened, among all the things I have done in my career, many discoveries. I consider this one the best discovery. Just to have it happen. I'm glad it happened in a time I can still go to the lab and be active and do this, actually. It not only attracted the attention of other scientists and other peers, it attracted the community which I thought would never have any interest in science. I have received hundreds and hundreds of email from the people. And one shocking thing was, when we published this in JACSJournal of the American Chemical Society – I didn't think anything is going to happen other than, we made a blue pigment and then my student is lucky because he can get a thesis now quickly, because he's done a lot of work, and he's a very hard working student. And finally, it turned out to be so different, because when the JACS paper came out, I got a call from New York Times. I didn't even know New York Times science reporter is going to look at JACS. If you publish in Science or Nature, I can understand that. So finally, he said he liked the way that we wrote the first paragraph. He said, "we are not looking for." He said, "very rarely scientists accept that I found something which I'm not looking for," because people immediately think that you are not really smart.

But he said there is something which – a lot of people ask me, "why did you tell the world you didn't plan for this?" "I was looking for a blue pigment." I may look more smarter definitely, but it is not the same feeling. In my mind, I know it is not the truth, so I live with it forever. From the beginning I thought, "this is the beauty of science." If people don't accept it, it is there problem. But I still enjoy what I do, so I'm not going to stop doing it because people are not accepting me.

So I know there are some comments made, "so what, it's a blue." But I think, I'm convinced this is how research happens. Many, many times discoveries happens when you aren't planning the discovery. So hopefully, there is something which will educate other students as much as possible, actually, who come into the lab. From the beginning, I tell them, "we are very fortunate to do this." I said, "imagine how many folks in this world can tell, when you go to work, can say, 'I don't know what I'm going to do today, but I'm going to do something, which I'm being paid for! And also I might discovery something which will change this world, actually!'" That is the beauty of being a scientist. So I think that's definitely what keeps me going still. Still I come to work at 6:30 in the morning and go home at 8:00, 9:00 in the evening, that's the only reason, I feel.

CP: So how has the work developed since the initial discovery? You're still pursuing this, I assume.


MS: Yes, because once we know where to look for, now we understood exactly where the color comes from here, so we could modify the crystal structure, the composition, we could create nearly every color. You can see, these are all the various colors we have created, actually. [holds up color palette] You look at it, all these colors are created from the blue we started, actually, the yttrium indium manganese oxide. And we can create all these colors. Now we are still looking for the red color, which is very hard to make. Even National Geographic magazine covered our discovery, because it reflects heat, so they are the next to cover our discovery.

So now we have done nearly most of the colors except red, we are still looking for the red. Red is more difficult to make. Because red comes from – most of the materials that are red, like cadmium red or cadmium sulfite or mercury sulfite, they are actually semiconductors; they have a band gap. That band gap absorbs certain energy which is close to the blue region. So when you observe the blue region, you get the red. But it is not easy to create a band gap so short that you can create an intense color, except when you have a cadmium sulfite, cadmium selenite, or mercury sulfite. That's what we're trying now to create oxides. How do we engineer the band gap to create colors that can be as bright red as cadmium? Because cadmium and mercury are toxic.

So all the companies want to do it and we have a support from Merck. And now, Andrew Smith, my first student, work for a company called Shepherd Color Company, which license our blue pigment. To see whether they can develop this to market as soon as possible, actually. There's a lot of interest in the pigment. Although one of the ingredients, indium, is expensive, but still the companies are trying to see if they can remove as much indium as possible and still keep the properties so that they can market it.

CP: Well that was my next question is the commercial application and the extent to which you're involved with that. It sounds like an infrastructure has been built to take care of that already. Am I correct about that?

MS: Yes, exactly. As soon as we published this paper, which came out in New York Times and Chemical & Engineering News, Shepherd Color Company called me and said – Jeff Peake, who is the boss of my student now – he called me and said, "I'd like to visit you." It had only been three days since it was published. He called and said, "I would like to visit you and figure out a time, maybe next week, from Ohio." He said, "can I come and talk to you?" Because they manufacture cobalt blue as a pigment, so they want to know how would this pigment compare to cobalt blue. So finally – they did a lot of evaluation – and finally they come to the conclusion that this can be probably the way to commercialize these pigments for heat reflecting roofings, called cool roofings, and so on. I am sure they are developing more than what we know, because now they have patent rights to work with, so they can modify this. Still it will belong to OSU because they have to license our patent.

One thing I am happy because the way we wrote the patent was so broad coverage, which I have a lot of experience from DuPont to help write patents, actually. So we could really cover the entire area: any pigment based on this crystal structure, any color, it belongs to OSU. So they have to license this pigment patent to do anything else.

CP: Well before we move on, I want to make sure we see this Memorial Union imagery that you brought.

MS: Oh yeah. You know, I gave a talk to OSU Art department, they asked me to come and give a talk about this pigment. So there were some Art students were there. And one of the student, after my lectures, contacted me and asked, "can I come and do something in your lab? Because I'm fascinated by your pigment discovery." So her name is Maddie Carbon [?] and she came and did some work in the summertime. She registered for the class and I asked her, "do you have any experience working in lab?" She said, "no, but I want to do it." So I said, "ok, if you want to do it, let's do it." So she made all the pigments then painted the Memorial Union façade [holds up framed painting] by using our pigments, and she gave me a framed copy of it. So I think it's just fascinating see how this discovery attracted students from other disciplines which, probably, you don't think it's gonna happen.


This has happened now quite some times, because now I've been giving several science pub talks in Corvallis, in Portland and so on. There's at least five or six painters that used our pigments, has shown that it works well and that they love it, actually. Recently in California, there was an exhibition, they used our pigment to paint some botanical paintings and I got a very nice interesting email. And my wife happened also to be an amateur painter, she painted this blue heron, [holds up copy of blue heron painting] and then it is in the Chemistry department office, hanging in the office, actually.

So I think it created a lot of interest among artists. Not only in industry where it is used in roof paintings and so on, it also a lot of artists all over the world have used our pigments to make something. I think artists are like chemists: whenever a new element is discovered, we get excited. So whenever a new pigment is discovered, they get really excited and see how it compares with other blues. So that really fascinating.

CP: Sure. Well as we start to conclude here, I have a few questions that are more institutional in nature. And I want to ask you about the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, ONAMI. This is something that I've not had a chance to talk to anybody about yet, so I'm interested in knowing more about the mission of ONAMI and your involvement with it.

MS: Well, I think that ONAMI was started as a collaboration between the state and the federal agencies, and put in an institute where people can come and collaborate. More of a collaborative kind of place. So Skip Rung, who is now heading the ONAMI, has done an outstanding job of putting this together. It also helps for start-ups, gap funding. We have some ideas – in my case, a lot of industry are already interested in it, so I don't need to do that. But in cases where you have to do some pilot runs to see whether it works, so they are willing to take funding through ONAMI. We also funded some of my start-up research, because in order to come up with the start-up package to start my program here, they were very helpful. And also many students are able to use ONAMI to get internships. So definitely an institution which, it started up mainly as an organization which will bring the Oregon researchers together, and nurture them, and see how we can improve the economy of Oregon, actually.

Oregon is in a very unique situation where it's not a star state, like North Carolina and those other places where you have – South Carolina, sorry – other places. So you don't get these special privileges if you're in a state that's not developed as much. We have Intel, we have HP, we have Nike. So we need to have some more help in getting this, because we are not a big state, like in some of the East Coast and so on. So we definitely, the ONAMI really helps the scientists to test their ideas and work with companies, so it definitely, I'm happy to be a part of it, actually. And also, they have some resources now in ONAMI labs, that we can go and use those resources, actually.

CP: So it sounds like it's sort of an incubator, maybe an angel investor?

MS: Yeah, incubator. It's kind of an incubator which, like the Research Triangle park in North Carolina, so we have something not at that level, but at least an organization which helps to bring people together. I think it has done an outstanding job. When I came in 2006, it was still growing and now it's grown to be pretty big.

CP: One of the themes of this project is change, and I'm interested in your perspective on how things have changed, over the course of the time that you've been here, in the department of Chemistry and the College of Science.

MS: Well, the university, overall, there's been a lot, actually. It is sometimes overwhelming, to be honest. I think we look at all the leadership; they've really done a fantastic job. I remember the billion-dollar campaign when I first came here, it was kind of hard. How long it going to take? But it didn't take as long, it's so quick, and then because of the good people who really thought about this very well.

Same thing with College of Science and Chemistry. Chemistry has grown. It was a very small department with eleven, twelve faculty; now we have over seventeen faculty, actually. So that definitely grew. College of Science itself has grown a lot. Now the College of Science has got a brand name actually, we are trying to create that, more and more. I think the dean has done a great job of doing that. So there's quite a bit of growth and we have more international students than when I came here. The INTO has brought a lot of students from other countries. So it's definitely a place – we can see it growing, because the parking is getting more and more harder, actually. [laughs] Because the buildings are coming up everywhere, as you can see, that has definitely occurred. You know, that is kind of the thing which is going to happen. Sometimes people are going to complain about it, but that's how it is. It was all worth it, actually, whether you go through a little bit of inconvenience. But definitely I find that the amount of funding we get from the federal agents has increased a lot. Visibility is higher now than when I came in 2006.


So, you know, a lot of people ask me, "why do you want to go to Oregon State? You can probably find a much more bigger school." And I when I was in DuPont, people would kind of as a question, "why you choose to go to Oregon State?" I felt from the beginning that it's a place where – it was a bit quieter when I first came here, but still I felt there was quite a bit of room to grow here, actually. So it's going to happen. Bringing good people in, that's a big thing, so that requires some investment. So that, I think, the university is doing a fantastic job of bringing some great people. For that you need to raise money, actually. That happened, actually. So everything is coming together; we are going to have a great future in OSU, actually.

CP: What lies ahead for you?

MS: Maybe you'll laugh when I say this: I want to win the Nobel Prize. [laughs] I think we should have somebody from here win the Nobel Prize. I know we have Linus Pauling who won the Nobel Prize as an undergraduate student, he was here, actually. We need somebody who did all the work here to win the Nobel Prize. I think many of us have the ambition, but you're not just going to go and get it, actually. But there's nothing wrong with having the ambition. I read about all these Nobel lectures. The reason I read – I tell my students the same thing. At the group meeting, I go and show videos sometime of discovery and so on. I always say, you read those Nobel lectures, you'll be really surprised how winning was. You don't think they have some ideas so genius that we can't think of those things. It can happen; it's just a matter of going at it, actually.

So I read about even Raman, who is an Indian Nobel laureate, C.V. Raman. When he said, why he thought the water is blue – that's why he discovered the Raman Effect finally, and won a Nobel Prize – he was in a ship looking at ocean and said, "why the water – is it really that water is blue?" It's true, water is slightly blue. But I'm just saying that it is really true, how you read all these Nobel lectures, you find that they were no different from you in some respects, because they have the same ambition to do the science. They were as curious as you are, actually. But it doesn't mean everybody can win Nobel Prize, but at least there's always a possibility, am I right? It exists. So I wish it happen from OSU, somebody gets it.

For me, personally, I'm hoping that I'm creating the students that come out of my lab, moving on to universities and also moving on to industries, they keep the same passion I have for the science, which I enjoyed very much in my career so far. In fact, if I create similar enthusiasm, I've done my job, I think. One of the reason why I moved to university, even though I never really need to do that, from DuPont, I really thought, I learn a lot from the company which provided me a lot of resources, I learn how to do this research so well, if I just stay there and disappear, it's gone. So, I could come here and pass it on to some younger generation, hopefully that will continue. That's my hope. And I think it's happening, so I'm confident it will happen, actually.

CP: Well Mas, I want to thank you for this. This has been a lot of fun. And if the Nobel Committee comes calling, people can say they heard it here first.

MS: [laughs] Thank you. It has been a pleasure to talking to you.

CP: Thank you, take care.



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