First Interview Session (April 11, 2008)
Narrator: T. Kent Kirk
Interviewer: Allison Page
Date: 11 April 2008
Location: Forest Products Laboratory
Transcriptionist: Allison Page (4/22/08)
Auditor: Lauren Benditt (5/12/08)
00:00:00 - 00:07:01 Introduction, Background
introduction, background; Hunt, George M., forestry, Louisiana Polytechnic Institute, North Carolina State University, Sweden, Chalmers Technical University; Adler, Erik, lignin; Freeze, Alan
Good afternoon today is Friday April 11, 2008. I'm Allison Page with the UW-Madison Oral History Program. And today I will be interviewing Kent Kirk about his remembrances and stories of the Forest Products Lab. Mr. Kirk if you would like to start with maybe a background in where you grew up, your academic history, and what led you to work at the Forest Products Lab.
Okay. I grew up in a small town in Northwest Louisiana and grew up liking trees and wood. So I decided to get a major in Forestry for my undergraduate degree. And I did that at what was then Louisiana Polytechnic Institute, I think it's Louisiana Tech University now. In the course of that bachelor's degree program I decided I really did not want to be a forester, in part because of spending two summers working in the woods as a forester---I think it was three. Anyway, it was not fun. It might be more fun in Wisconsin, but in Louisiana in the summertime in the woods, it's not---it's kind of off-putting. So, I decided to go to graduate school and I decided that I really liked to study, or to know about, the diseases of trees.
So, I went to North Carolina State University and got a master's degree with a very well-known plant pathologist---not a forest pathologist---but he was in charge of that program, Arthur Kelman. And I worked on a disease that was then thought to be very serious in the Southeastern part of the United States---turned out not to be so important---but in the course of that master's degree I decided that I did not want to work for anybody else, so that I had to get a PhD if I wanted to avoid that and be my own boss. So I stayed on at North Carolina State and Arthur---one year into my PhD program---decided to come to Wisconsin and became a chair of a department here---the plant pathology department. And Ellis Cowling moved down to Raleigh from Yale and became my major professor. And about that same time---Ellis was a graduate by the way of Wisconsin---about that same time I decided that I wouldn't get very far with just biological background and I decided to stay an extra year and get a PhD also in biochemistry. And that entailed talking a lot of courses that I should have taken as an undergraduate, like physical chemistry and such things, but it was worth it.
So, at that point I had a knowledge of forestry and wood, a knowledge of the microorganisms that cause disease of trees and that decay trees, or wood. Then I had a strong background in chemistry, or strong I thought, anyway, certainly a lot stronger than most people in plant pathology get. So, I graduated with a double PhD and then I went to---I stayed on at NC State for six months while my then wife finished her bachelor's degree. Then we, the family, moved to Göteborg, Sweden and I did a post-doc there---I did a post-doc during the six months I was still at NC State too, it was in polymer chemistry---and then I went to Chalmers Technical University in Sweden. Worked under a world famous professor, whose name was Erich Adler and had a wonderful time there, stayed a year and a half.
What year, time period is this?
Oh yeah. Well the bachelor's degree was '62, the master's degree was '64, and the PhD was '67. That post-doc [in Raleigh] was '68 and the Sweden was mid-'68 and all of '69. Now during the time I was a graduate student at NC State, I had the opportunity to come up here to the Forest Products Lab for a summer. And that was a very good experience---I came up to synthesize some compounds for my doctoral research in Raleigh---and that worked and I learned a lot of hands on organic chemistry up here and was very impressed with the place. It had a good reputation---one of your questions there---the Forest Products Lab had an excellent reputation. At that time, 1966, it was fifty-six years old I guess, now it is nearing a hundred---it's hard to believe.
Anyway, in Sweden too I learned---I just worked in the lab and learned a lot of organic chemistry techniques. So at that point I had some knowledge---and I worked on one of the component of wood, lignin, in [Raleigh and] Sweden. That's why I went to this professor's, [Professor Adler's ] laboratory. He had a big group there and I have some good friends---going back in August. Anyway, at that point then, when I was looking for a job in '69, jobs were scarce in the United States. And so I first considered staying in Sweden---which I liked very much, still do. Then I just wrote to the people I had known here in Madison, asking if they had the possibility of a job. I got a very nice letter back from one of the assistant directors, who was called a Division Chief then I think, Allen Freas, offering me a job. So from Sweden I made a trip back to---or the family did---back to Raleigh to pickup a bunch of our stuff and then to Louisiana to say hello to our families, then drove up to Madison and it was minus fifteen degrees when we got to Madison on January eleventh or twelfth, or something like that, in 1970! So that's when I started working here fulltime. I'll let you ask another question Allison, I won't ramble.
00:07:01 - 00:08:03 Summer Employment
summer employment; Pugh, Clarence, lignin
Going back to that summer that you spent up here in '66, I think you said.
What kind of work did you do during that summer?
I worked in the laboratory of Clarence Pew, who was a lignin chemist working at Forest Products Lab, and pretty well-known himself and in that laboratory he had a technician, Bill Connors, and I worked with Bill. And I had come up here to synthesize a compound, a lignin related compound, and Bill and I made the compound and I learned a lot about practical organic chemistry with him. So it was a very valuable summer and the weather in Madison that summer was absolutely perfect, and I couldn't get over how much of a contrast with Louisiana and Raleigh that summer had been. So, anyway, I didn't hesitate to come back to Madison, even though I was a southerner. And I haven't ever left.
00:08:03 - 00:12:07 First Day
first day, wood deterioration, microbiology, Fox, Jeff; Esslin, Wally; Esenther, Glenn R., chemistry, Jack Roe, analytical chemistry group, editorial group, photography group, computer group, statistics
Do you have any memories of your first couple days on the job in 1970, and who you worked with?
Yeah, they put me into a wood decay group or, it was actually wood deterioration---I forget the exact name of it now, but microbiology anyway---dealing with decay and its practical---practical aspects of wood decay. You must, you might know that the fungi that decompose wood are responsible for---are probably the main component of the earth's carbon cycle as far decomposing things, because most of the carbon is tied up in wood and other related biomass.
Anyway, that was important work, but it didn't interest me much, there wasn't any chemistry to speak of. But there was some good people there, Joe Fox---Jeff Fox, no not Joe Fox, Clark---and Wally Eslyn was running the group, Glenn Esenther was there, all well-known wood types, [decomposition experts]. Esenther was an entomologist there---he studied termites and things like that. But I was not happy, and after about---well you said the first two days?---I was overwhelmed the first two days of course, I just was learning things, and not just the first two days, but probably the first two months. I did some cooperative work with Wally Eslyn and---I don't remember when the mycology group moved from Maryland to the Forest Products Lab, but later I worked with some of those guys as well. They were all mycologists and therefore knew fungi.
Anyway, I requested a transfer to a chemistry orientated group here at the Forest Products Lab and they put me in the project, research work unit, of Jack Rowe, which was---those guys dealt with, the scientists dealt with wood extractives primarily. So, I, I went into that group with the idea of trying something new, using the fungi that know how to decompose wood, beneficially rather than trying to fight them. Things like biological pulping of wood or using the enzymes that these fungi produced to convert wood, or wood components, into other products, was the focus of my research under Jack Rowe.
One of the things that makes, made working at the Forest Products Lab so enjoyable and productive were the services that were available. Particularly, in my case, the analytical chemistry group, the editorial group, the photography group, [wood- and metal-working shops ,] later a computing group and just all kinds of [services], and statistics. All of these services made the scientist's life a lot easier at Forest Products Lab than it would be at a university for example. Universities don't have those services, or some of them do, but, and some of them have some of the services. But FPL really had a lot of services, making it possible to use my time much more productively rather than trying to analyze some chemical to send it upstairs and have them analyze it and for me to plan the next experiment or whatever.
00:12:07 - 00:14:15 Publications
publications, editors, analytical chemistry
And which of these services did you use quite a bit and to what extent?
Well, every time I published a paper, or wrote a paper for a publication---and in the end there were about 200 publications---it had to go through editing first. Oh, there was a graphics arts group too that could do illustrations for whatever, just a real nice service. So going through editing happened a lot, and you'd work with an editor until you got your paper in shape for publication. Universities don't have that kind of thing either---so that everything is, all the "T"s are crossed and the "I"s dotted by the time the paper's ready and it's in the right format for the journal. And I---actually by that time I'd gotten divorced and I married one of the editors, so that's what I thought about them and she kept editing my papers and it worked out fine.
The service I used most was probably analytical chemistry. Back in those days---it's hard to believe it now---but they would analyze wood components using techniques that, to us now seem really archaic but they worked beautifully---including paper chromatography for example. Now that hasn't been used, isn't used, anymore to my knowledge---but they used it quantitatively and very, very accurately. In fact, that group, that analytical chemistry group was the world's standard as far as I know. Unfortunately, they never published their procedures, a book of their procedures, but I think some of it has been published now. And of course some of it would be way out of date now even if they had published it. [pause] What would you like to hear next?
00:14:15 - 00:20:21 Publications
publications, lignin, fungi, radioactive CO2, university appointment, graduate students, grants, cooperative publications
Well, I was kind of wondering a little bit about the types of publications that you did, what type of content, or topics you covered in your publications? I know you said that you did about, roughly 200 or so.
That's a good question. Well, my whole career ended up being spent on how lignin is converted back to CO2 and water. And we set out looking at partially degraded lignin that had been attacked by wood decay fungi and we characterized it chemically and physically. That was the first step, the chemistry of the lignin degradation, lignin biodegradation. Then the next step was to answer the question, okay we know fungi decompose lignin, but what about other microorganisms, what about bacteria? And ended up---you can't answer that question with current, or with the techniques that were available then, so I backed up and synthesized radioactive lignin. With the radioactive lignin, carbon-14-labeled lignin, we were able to put that lignin in cultures of whatever fungi, or soil sample, or whatever. And looked for radioactive CO2, which meant that something in there was able to decompose the lignin all the way back to carbon, carbon dioxide. And with that assay we were able to, we were unable to find any bacterial decomposition of lignin, and to this day it doesn't occur even though some people say it does. We also found that in the absence of oxygen, lignin does not decay. A lot of things do of course [biodegrade in the absence of oxygen], and sewage treatment plants and all that kind of environment, landfills. So oxygen is not necessary for the decomposition of biomass, but it is for lignin [decomposition. Anyway, our studies with carbon-14-labeled lignin led to a number of publications.]
I started having graduate students from the University---I got a University appointment about 1982 in the Department of Bacteriology, and still have it, I'm now an Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology. So I was able to get graduate students, and even more importantly, I was able to get post-docs funded by grants obtained through the University. And eventually because of the radioactive lignin assay, our program attracted a lot of visiting scientists from other labs around the world. I don't know how many visiting scientists I had, I would have to look that up, but I'm sure it was at least thirty through the years. And they would stay for anywhere from one, one month to a year. The post-docs, I probably had twenty of them, and I think I was a major professor for twelve graduate students through Bacteriology.
So you ask about publications, one of the jobs of a scientist is to divide the [research] question into discrete packages so that it lends itself to getting an answer and putting a little part of the story together for publication. Scientific journals don't publish great long papers, they probably average five pages in a printed journal. I don't know how many bytes that is now. But anyway, so dividing a work up into discrete packages like that---for example, the synthesis of the radioactive lignin and demonstration that lignin degrading fungi could convert it to CO2, radioactive CO2, was a discrete package and that was a publication. A study of the chemistry of what we could learn of the chemistry by studying the degraded lignin early on in the '70s, made three discrete packages.
I published very few papers by myself. It was questioned by the Forest Service why that was the case, but nobody did, and certainly nobody does anymore, very rarely. So I worked with scientists all over the world, not just the one who were in my lab, but we would divide up one of our discrete packages, questions up, and somebody in Sweden might do half of it and I would do half of it here and we would write the paper together. And so, I probably worked with, I don't know, well over a hundred other---I mean have been well over a hundred co-authors, probably two hundred or more co-authors on these publications. And in biology it is the custom that the leader of the group put his name last on the publication, on the list of authors. Usually the graduate student goes first and then---But in biology the senior guy goes at the end and the Forest Service kept questioning me about why I wasn't senior author on any of my papers. We finally got that straightened out, because of course it wasn't just I, it was everybody in biology was doing research. So, why don't you prompt me here with another?
00:20:21 - 00:22:16 Managing Time
managing time, tenure, meetings, graduate students
Well, you said that you got an appointment with the University, so you still worked with the Forest Products Lab at that time. What was it like trying to manage your relationship with the University and your job at Forest Products?
You're right, I was paid all the time by the Forest Products Laboratory, until I retired actually and then I was paid by the University for three years. But I went through the tenure review process and was actually a bona fide associate professor and then full-professor, so I did that. Your question---It was not easy because the Lab seemed to have an increasing number of meetings, or maybe it was my position that was changing and I had to go to meetings here that---I'd much rather be doing research. The University has even more meetings than the Lab. So I would attend a faculty meeting periodically, but I really wasn't concerned with most of the things that they discussed. Some things I was of course, but most of it concerned assignment of rooms or whatever, how to respond to a review or something like that. So I didn't spend as much time over there as I could have. It was not physically possible, but of course when I was major professor of a student, then I would have to call the graduate student committee meetings and run the meetings. So, that took some time. It probably was worth it though because the graduate students here at Wisconsin are always very smart, and were very good for our program. Did I answer your question?
00:22:16 - 00:23:52 Association Between The Forest Products Lab And The University
association between the Forest Products Lab and the University, grants
Well, I was wondering how the Forest Products Lab felt, or if you could have any idea how the Lab felt about your work with UW?
Yeah, they didn't like it. It was a constant battle and it still is I understand from my former colleagues. The Forest Service research laboratories are very often associated with a university and the same thing has been true for all of those laboratories, that they are uncomfortable with the association with the universities. But I'll tell you, having the association with the University, this is a great university, and having that association was worth the hassle and it was a constant attempt you know to get, how do you get around this rule or regulation. For example, we weren't allowed, no government employee, was allowed to get NSF grants, but through the university it was possible to get federal grants like that and I don't know if that's changed or not, but I kind of doubt it. But, our progress in research was so fast and we were so productive that I don't think the Forest Service administrators could argue too much with the way we were doing it. So that was a perceptive question, maybe you heard it before from somebody else, that kind of a comment.
00:23:52 - 00:32:43 Finding Balance
finding balance, typical day, scientific papers, working after hours, administrative work, meetings; Jefferies, Tom; Hamill, Ken, lignin biodegradation; Cullen, Dan; Lemar, Rich, five-carbon sugars
Well, I was just wondering because---
Seems like two jobs.
Yeah, and trying to find a balance and that kind of thing. Changing gears a little bit, could you describe maybe a typical day of work here at the lab, what kind of things you would do?
Yeah, during my career at the Forest Products Lab my day would start before the kids got up. It started about four o'clock in the morning with a cup of coffee and a notebook. And I would plan the work that I wanted to get done that day, sometimes I would read scientific papers, other times I would write scientific papers. But, so my day started early and I pooped out early in the afternoon as well. But, a typical day then would be to come to work---I always had a technician by the way, that was another big advantage of this lab. We each had a fulltime technician and I would give the technician, or in some cases more than one, instructions for what I wanted to try to get done that day, and then turn them loose---And usually go back to the office and do some more writing or reading, or talking to colleagues. Or, in those days we would have to write letters to communicate with foreign associates. So I had a lot of office work, but as often as I could, in those early days I would be back in the laboratory doing work.
One of the things that people don't realize, who are not microbiologists, is that they don't stop growing at night and on the weekends. They keep doing what they're doing, for example, converting radioactive lignin into radioactive CO2 and it was necessary for years to come in after hours and on the weekends and flush the CO2 out of cultures and put more oxygen in and stuff like that kind of a thing. Or to start an experiment that needed to go for a certain number of days. And so I spent a lot of time in here on the weekends and the evenings when, in other fields, that's not necessary. So, I really didn't feel bad about [taking time off during a weekday,] and I never asked the technicians to come in although some of them did. Or maybe I did ask them once or twice, but anyway they didn't complain. It was fun. I lost my train of thought so. [long pause].
Well you said typical day, it was just office and lab, and later on when I got into a more administrative type position I would have some of the onerous meetings that I mentioned to you. And once a week I had my group, by then I had several scientists and they had technicians, and we at one point I had fifty, a staff of fifty. That was as big as it got, but we had seminars once a week within our group, or we would invite somebody from outside to come in, give a seminar, somebody from the University for example. And that was for the sake of the graduate students because all of us scientists had graduate students, by then we were known as the Institute for Microbial and Biochemical Technology, so that's what connected us.
We had an expert on the fermentation of five carbon sugars, Tom Jefferies. He's still here and is a world leader in that field. Ken Hammel, is here. He's an expert on the subject that kept me busy for so many years, lignin biodegradation. I would say he knows more about it than anybody else in the world right now, including me. And then we hired Dan Cullen later on. Dan is a molecular geneticist, and has just done a splendid job of working out the molecular genetics of these wood decay organisms, and he's worked with a variety of other people and so forth. So, at one point we had another NC State graduate, Rich Lamar, who has since moved on, but he was, is very hardworking fellow. And his interest, he was a soil scientist, and his interest was in bioremediation. We discovered that these lignin-degrading fungi can also can degrade a wide variety of pollutants, and so not only [pause] were we thinking about things like bio-pulping, which is an obvious one, but we were thinking of soil remediation and we were thinking of decolorizing a lignin-derived waste from pulp mills, bleach plants, and bio-pulping as well and fermentation of five-carbon sugars, which Tom has really taken a lead in.
So we had both sides of the research, types of research, we had the practical applications, which the Forest Service was very interested in, and that's how you sell your program, and the basic aspects like the radioactive lignin, you know which, what are the enzymes that decompose lignin. And we eventually discovered a lignin-degrading enzyme, the first one, and one your questions on your sheet had to be with what's one of the highlights of your-that was one of them.
One of them, I can tell you a story that illustrates serendipity in research. When we first made the radioactive lignin and sprinkled it into some liquid cultures of lignin-degrading fungi the radioactive lignin was ignored, it was not decomposed to CO2. We tried everything that we could think of, the fungi would grow fine, but they would not touch this lignin. At that point we knew the lignin was okay, it was synthesized in the laboratory, but we knew it was authentic enough because if we sprinkled it on a little piece of wood and then decayed the wood, [radioactive CO2] would come off. But why in these liquid cultures would---which is the way you study microorganisms---why wouldn't it happen? And one day, this was a complicated culture medium, one day my technician made up the culture medium with one-tenth the amount of nutrient nitrogen that was supposed to be in there. That's an easy mistake, you just pick up the wrong pipette. And those cultures just blew the CO2 off of those radioactive lignins. For the first time that worked. And we of course didn't know why all of a sudden it started working, but we could that the fungi in those cultures were not very happy, they weren't growing very well. And so we suspected that there's something missing from the medium and that's what proved to be the case. I mean that is pure serendipity, and from that point on it was much easier to work with the fungi.
And to, to my---the reason that the nitrogen was important, at the low level of nitrogen, triggers what is called secondary metabolism in fungi. And these fungi have to be in a secondary metabolic state before they would degrade lignin, and nobody knows to this day why that's the case. [Secondary metabolism's] when fungi, other fungi, will produce antibiotics and all kinds of complicated chemicals, but why lignin biodegradation should be tied to it, to that phase, is not yet clear. But it is, and that was fun, it was a lot of fun. Just the time to track that down, or the time that we did, that was a lot of fun. To see that carbon dioxide come off for the first time.
00:32:43 - 00:34:54 Reaction To Publication
reaction to publication, awards, press releases, Capital Times, State Journal, Forest Service, citations,
What kind of reaction did you get from FPL in general or the community, when you published, or made your research known?
Oh, how to answer that. I got a lot of awards and honors and [pause] there were write-ups in the newspaper, that was another thing that the Lab did, if you accomplished something, you get an award or something, you would get written-up---you know they'd send a write-up to the Cap Times or the State Journal. So that, as far as the community was concerned, a little bit of press that way. But the honors meant a lot to me, it was---that outside groups were showing appreciation for the research, as well as the Forest Service of course, that I was treated very generously by the Forest Service.
And the paper describing the carbon-14 lignin really got a lot of attention. The last time I checked, you can check with the Institute of Scientific Information, I think it's still extant, and you can see who is citing your papers in their subsequent papers. So you can go and get an idea of how---what kind of an impact your papers are having. The last time I checked mine had been cited over 10,000 times by others, so that's a lot. I could take that information and give it to the Forest Service and say, "look, my research might not seem too practical, but it's getting a lot of attention, it's important to, to others." So, that is one way that we discovered, and not just mine, but the other guys in the group as well. So we learned to justify our basic research that way. [long pause]
00:34:54 - 00:37:20 Travel
travel, Europe, Sweden, international meetings, American Chemical Society, Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry, International Academy of Wood Science, president, Asia
Well, I know that you did work here at the Lab and you also did work with the University, did your work take you elsewhere outside of either the state or the city?
I traveled a lot, yeah I've traveled so much as part of my job that I don't really enjoy traveling that much anymore. Europe several times---I was the external examiner on Swedish PhD's I think four times, and probably went back to Sweden every year for the first thirty years after I was a post-doc there. Everywhere trees grow pretty much, and where there're laboratories studying them, you know, the Pacific Northwest, I've been to every state except Arizona, I don't think they have a forest products lab there. I'll get there. I did a sabbatical in Japan in 1979 and early '80 I think. I worked there in the laboratory, I got away from administrative-type stuff for eight months and just worked, I had a specific objective, and worked with a fellow who was very good at that kind of work and we got it done.
So, scientists always have interesting international meetings, I organized some of those myself, but others certainly did and continue to do so. So Paris and Hamburg, Raleigh, New Zealand, lots of different places where those meetings were held. And then there're annual meetings at the American Chemical Society and Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry, and other things like that. I also served as an officer in the International Academy of Wood Science, ending up as President, and that would take me to other countries. So, yeah I traveled more than I---I vowed never to go back to Asia again, but maybe you shouldn't print that.
00:37:20 - 00:39:24 Cooperative Work
cooperative work, Sweden, post-doc, Japan, teaching; Hamill, Ken; Cullen, Dan
What was one of your most interesting or most memorable instances of working abroad with other scientists?
[Pause]. Well I didn't do a lot of that, I did that in, as a post-doc in Sweden and I had a lot of fun so the memories of that, of working in that organic chemistry department at Chalmers University in Sweden are very good ones. We worked so hard in Japan that---and I learned a lot from the fellow I was working with---that those are pleasant memories. We lived in Kyoto, so that was a pleasant city to be in and lots to see.
So memories here, I mean I had so many good experiences here with the research until the end of my career, toward the end of my career, very strong support by the administrators at the Forest Products Lab. That was not the case at the time I retired and that's one reason I left, and reason was that my wife had been diagnosed with colon cancer and so for---and I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish so I just---as far as research is concerned. So I took early out, early retirement, and helped [my wife] for another year and a half and then she died. And as I said I continued with the University for a little while, that was part time though. Taught a course over there with Ken Hammel and Dan Cullen for, I don't know, five years toward the end of my career and then a little bit after I retired from here.
00:39:24 - 00:43:43 Struggles
struggles, awards, end of career, Marcus Wallenberg Prize, Sweden, National Academy of Sciences; Koning, John, dissatisfaction
Well, if you would like to describe a little bit about your time here towards the end of your career and some of the struggles you had, or reasons why you decided to leave, go into a little bit more about that if you are comfortable.
Well, I think a more important thing to get down is---concerns some of the awards that I was lucky enough to receive. One of them was the Marcus Wallenberg Prize, I was the first American to get that award. It was given out in some very fancy ceremonies by the King of Sweden, in Falun, Sweden. And that's a prize for forestry related research. I shared it with a fellow, a Swede, who died last week actually, and that was a wonderful experience getting that award and it was a great honor. Another Forest Service scientist has now gotten that award and I think a third might have gotten it, I kind of lost track of it, because there's then different fields in forestry and some of them I don't understand.
Also, I was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1988 and I'm only the second Forest Service scientist to been elected to the Academy, so that was really a high point of my short career and it was, it still is, a very pleasant organization to belong to and to go to the meetings and so forth. I think part of the reason I got the, even nominated, for the Academy or the Wallenberg Prize, or any of these others is because of the administrators at the Laboratory were interested in getting their people recognized. Particularly, I can imagine that John Koning, who was my Assistant Director and therefore he was my supervisor for several years until he retired. I was very good about putting people in for awards and the election to the Academy came as such a total surprise to me that I was absolutely overwhelmed and it's not easy to keep those things secret. I know because I've nominated people myself since then [laughs] and it's not easy. The Wallenberg Prize, I had gotten some hints about that because it just leaks out because that's a forestry related one and it gets around the world of forestry.
So the dissatisfaction at the end of my career, you would probably hear that from other people if you ask---we had a director here who came from Washington after, I don't know how many years, as a bureaucrat and he didn't seem to me to have much interest in research. And you really couldn't talk with him about research, it was totally different from the previous directors I'd served under. Then they hired a, he didn't but, they had hired a fellow from industry who came here as deputy director and he really didn't know anything about research. So that was a big disappointment to me, it just seemed to me that the emphasis was on civil rights, it was on budget, it was on union matters, it was on all kinds of things but research, and it wasn't fun anymore. So I was lucky that I could just get out.
00:43:43 - 00:45:02 Changes At The Lab
changes at the lab, fewer employees, empty space
Did you notice some actual, besides maybe the emphasis by administrators, did you notice any actual changes within the Lab in terms of number of employees or...?
Yeah, it's gone down steadily, the number of employees you see walking around these buildings. You see a lot of empty space. And of course that's not something that is under the control of the Director of the Forest Products Laboratory, but to some extent it is because he competes, or she competes, with the other directors of the Forest Service stations---I think there are eight of them---and there's a finite pot of money and it's divvyed up. So to that extent the Director has been responsible for the lowering of the number of scientists and engineers here. I don't, for the life of me, understand why they are building a new building out front when the staff numbers have been going down. There must be a rhyme or reason for that. Well, I'll tell you what---oh I've got fifteen more minutes, but I'm going to have to go at eleven-thirty.
Okay, that's fine.
So ask me the ones you really want to know.
00:45:02 - 00:54:27 Friends, Post-Docs
friends, post-docs; Tien, Ming; Lemar, Rich; Hamill, Ken; Chang, Ho Min; Odier, Etienne; Mozak, Mike; Koning, John, collaboration, bio-pulping, industry, environment; Jefferies, Tom, lignin, five-carbon sugars
Okay. I guess the last part that I really wanted to kind of capture was any memories that you have about specific people at the Lab and overall, general perceptions of the lab during your time here.
Yeah I had several good friends---they still are good friends, at the Forest Products Lab. Some of them I worked with and some of them were in other groups, some of them were at the University. So having that close camaraderie is, it was important, that was fun. I enjoyed very much working with some of my post-docs, in particular Ming Tien who came to me with a PhD in biochemistry from Michigan State. And Rich Lamar came to me with a PhD in soil science from NC State. Ken Hammel who came from Germany, he was doing a post-doc in Germany when we hired him. And several, I'm not doing some of the others justice because I can't remember their names, but I really very much enjoyed working with those guys and planning experiments and trying to interpret results.
And several scientists in other universities or laboratories I really enjoyed working with. Hon -Min Chang at North Carolina State, who I did not know when I was there, he came after I left. He is a professor, was a professor of wood and paper science there, I think that's the name of it. We published a lot of papers together, of practical and basic aspects of our work. Etienne Odier in Paris was a French guy, obviously, that I had really enjoyed working with. He spent time here and we published some papers together. Had a lot of fun working with some of the technicians, Mike Mozak in particular. He and I had a lot of fun making compounds and making things work, growing up cultures and such things. I enjoyed working with John Koning, my supervisor, because he was such a generous administrator. He just worked for his people, and that is not always the case, so he tried very hard to protect his scientists from all of the petty nonsense that you get in any place, you know, whether it's industry or university or federal lab. And he did a good job of forming a good barrier for that kind of stuff. So I guess working with people was the most enjoyable thing, there're a lot of those "light going on" moments when the research was just a high point of the day. And let's see [pause].
One thing about this lab, it's all focused on forest products, or wood, and so in contrast to a university you can go, you can walk around the Lab and find somebody who's an expert on whatever question you have at the moment. There were some very good wood chemists at the Lab and I consulted with them many times and even engineers on occasion to [pause] you know, figure out how to do something. One of the things that we did toward the end of my career was, we worked on a practical process for biopulping, for pulping wood with fungi. When wood is pulped chemically, the process just takes out the lignin, leaving the cellulose, that's basically it. So the question was can we just take these lignin-degrading fungi and leave the---remove the lignin and leave the cellulose there? Well the answer is you can't get all the lignin out and the reason for that is that the lignin degradation is not self-supporting, the fungus has to eat some sugars in order to degrade the lignin, you can't get energy out lignin. So when you biopulp, you take out---you can have a selective fungus that will take out a lot of the lignin, but also will eat some of the sugars, the hemicelluloses they are, mainly. That worked in the lab and what it did was it reduced the energy, this is fungal treatment, reduce the energy required for making a pulp mechanically, that's another way to use papers for example, newsprint is just mechanical. And it reduced the energy for that by thirty percent and that process was taken to the fifty-ton scale and that's a big pile of woodchips and a photograph of that should be, if you have photographs in your book, that should be in there. That was done several times, but it never became commercialized.
Another thing that was done on a---well let me backup and tell you the reason it didn't become commercialized illustrates a point. The pulp and paper industry is very conservative and they don't, they hire chemical engineers mainly, civil engineers, they don't have anybody that "speaks biology." So almost any process that requires some knowledge of biology is over their heads, they don't have the background to understand it. And so biopulping, though it works very well and economics look great, is not commercial. Maybe it will with energy prices so high now, this is certainly going to be something worth looking at again although I don't know who's going to do it now, it's not studied here anymore, the work is done. We have patents. The bioremediation of soils, the work of Rich Lamar, was taken to a large scale also and in the procedure the fungus, fungi, whatever which one you're using there're several of them will work, are grown upon pellets and then the pellets are mixed in with the contaminated soil and the fungi grow and degrade the pollutant, the contaminant. That was taken to a large scale and that actually did become commercial. Unfortunately, under Reagan it wasn't as important to clean up the environment as it had been before and so the funding fizzled out on that project, but it was briefly commercial for a while. Some sites are still required to be cleaned up and I don't know the exact status of it anymore, but that was the case at one time.
Now Tom Jefferies, as I said, is the world leader on fermenting five-carbon sugars. Are you going to interview Tom? Maybe not. Let me tell you, anyway, if you take wood and convert it with acid or some other process is you get a mixture of the lignin and glucose and a five-carbon sugar named---glucose is six-carbon---five carbon sugar named zylose. It's about twenty-five percent lignin, twenty-five percent zylose, and fifty percent glucose. Anyway, obviously if you're going to ferment this mixture of sugars, the lignin is filtered off and burned or something [as well as six-carbon sugars]. But if you're going to ferment the sugars you got be able to ferment five-carbon sugars. And so plants that have a lot of these five-carbon sugars, which includes all crop plants and all broadleaf trees, broadleaf [hardwood] trees. It's very important to be able to convert that and Tom Jefferies has figured out how to do that, it's a specialized yeast he's been studying and which actually does it. [long pause]. So there. You can call if you want to ask any more questions.
[End of interview]