Featured Alumni Dr. Richard Turner
Can you imagine what a great year 1966 was for me? Fresh with my master's degree from Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, TN, I joined Professor George Butler's group for my Ph.D. studies. It was an exciting year in Gainesville as my fellow Tennessean, Steve Spurrier, quarterbacked the Gators and his game winning field goal against Auburn also brought him the Heisman trophy. (Like all Gators I really enjoyed the years that he coached the Gators to the top of the SEC and national polls.) Professor Butler’s group was very large during those days with over 25 students, postdocs and visiting scientists working on cyclopolymerization and many other aspects of synthetic polymer chemistry. The burning fundamental questions in the laboratory at that time were the actual ring size in cyclopolymerization and cyclocopolymerization and the role of charge transfer complexes in cyclocopolymerization. Senior grad students Dick Dunn and Keith Baucom along with postdoc Ray Ottenbrite helped me get my feet wet in research and taught me the ropes. Dr. Butler's secretary was Mickey Highsmith and she ran a tight ship for the boss. Her husband, Ron Highsmith, was an inorganic major and helped me survive my first interactions with Prof. Dick Dresdner for whom I was a teaching assistant. We had a great group of grad students during my tenure at Florida. Tom Smith, Kiyo Fujimori, Jim Schweitert, and Jim Riggsbee all joined the group the same year I did. Later Ken Wagener and Charles McCormick joined the group. As a first generation college student from Old Hickory, TN (a small village close to Nashville), I probably had never met anyone from another country. This changed dramatically on joining the Butler group. During my time in the group, there were postdocs and visiting scientists from Egypt, Canada, England, Belgium, Germany, France, Japan, and even Ohio (Larry Guilbault). Interacting with this great group of talented scientists really whetted my appetite to try to spend time in Europe. I was fortunate to land a postdoc in Darmstadt, Germany with Prof. R. C. Schulz who had visited Prof. Butler's group while I was in Gainesville.
I had ambitions to enter the academic world, but in 1972, when we returned to the US, the economy was just coming out of recession and polymer chemistry was not a popular academic subject so after writing letters to many universities with no positive results, I turned to industry. I started in the Xerox corporate lab in Webster, NY, just outside Rochester. My wife Pamela, whom I met at UF and is from Orlando, and I learned to shovel snow and to snow ski—we still look forward to ski trips, but not shoveling. My research (it was still called research in industry in those days) at Xerox working on electron and hole transporting polymeric materials. One of the members of the group I was in actually discovered the "TBD" molecule, which is ubiquitous today as a hole transport material in many applications, and which was a breakthrough for Xerox's first organic photoconductor. TBD actually enabled a new generation of copiers for Xerox. Based on my organic chemistry training at UF, I was instrumental in working out a scaleable synthetic scheme for TBD which I think is still used to produce this molecule on large scale I was attracted to the Exxon Corporate lab in Linden, NJ, since a lot of the exploratory polymer work at Xerox was being deemphasized. At Exxon I spent three years working in ionomers and water soluble polymers for enhanced oil recovery and, even though I think Dow won an interference patent case with Exxon, I believe I was the first to prepare hydrophobically associating polyacrylamide copolymers and to employ microemulsions in the polymerization process to prepare these polymers.
Pam and I returned to Rochester in 1982 where I went to work for Eastman Kodak Company in the photoresist area. New Jersey just seemed too congested for us. My 12 years at Kodak were spent working on a variety of interesting exploratory projects including using the Heck reaction for preparing polymers and starting research in dendritic and hyperbranched polymers. I was fortunate to be able to work closely with Prof. Jean Frechet who was at Cornell University at the time we did this work. Kodak, at that time, still was investing in exploratory polymeric materials research and my management was very supportive of my research and also of my professional endeavors in the PMSE Division of the ACS where I served in many capacities including Chairman in 1992. In 1993, Kodak dissolved the corporate laboratory where I worked and I accepted a transfer back to my home state of Tennessee where I joined Eastman Chemical's polymer technology organization. I thoroughly enjoyed my years trying to enhance the properties of Eastman's legacy polyesters and was able to do a lot of very interesting things including interacting with venture fund managers. I was very appreciative that Eastman’s management allowed me to continue my external professional activities and publish some of our work. I was promoted to Research Fellow in 1998. It was at Eastman that Tom Smith and I reconnected after many years. Tom transferred to Kingsport from the Eastman labs in Longview, Texas and actually became the laboratory head for the group I worked in for several years. It was a real pleasure working with and for Tom, and I had very mixed emotions when he retired and moved back to Gainesville. Tom and I had both cheered and suffered watching the Gators on TV and we spent a lot of time together trying to help contribute to Eastman's polyester enterprise.
The lure of spending time in an academic setting continued to be a strong pull for me through out my industrial career. So when Virginia Tech asked me to come to Blacksburg in 2004 to head the newly formed Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute, it was a challenge and opportunity that I could not turn down. Over the years I had several occasions I could have made a move away from industry, but with a growing family and other constraints the timing was never right. With both our daughters in college, and being eligible for retirement, I took the offer and in January 2005, I started my academic career. New jobs are always exciting and trying to enhance the impact of MII at Virginia Tech, start a small research group, and teach is proving to be exciting and challenging. I have been very fortunate in my career to have worked for world-class organizations and have been surrounded by excellent supporting and stimulating colleagues. Without the support, encouragement and education I received at the University of Florida in the Butler group and the Chemistry Department, things would certainly not gone as well as they have for me.
Content Updated: 2009