John Prausnitz, Professor of Chemical Engineering, is considered the father of molecular thermodynamics in chemical engineering. He has published over 600 articles and has received numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships. He is a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences. He is shown here being congratulated by Joel Hildebrand after the publication of his book.
What drew you to Berkeley?
My goal was to apply what I had learned from people like Hildebrand in physical chemistry and apply it to chemical engineering. Hildebrand had worked with the thermodynamics of liquid mixtures. I took what I learned from his papers as well as those from Pitzer and Brewer and developed them for chemical engineering. This activity kept me busy for many years. Over the last ten years, I have been applying what I know about liquid mixtures to polymers and protein solutions; Hildebrand and Pitzer never worried about proteins.
How has the Chemical Engineering Department evolved
during your tenure?
But then Clark Kerr became chancellor in the early 1950s and decided that chemical engineering belonged to the College of Chemistry. One reason he decided that was because thats where the students were. The students had already voted with their feet, and process engineering was phased out.
In 1955 there were only six faculty members and one secretary for all of us. And a phone was a luxury. Most of us did not have our own phones. If I wanted to make a call, I had to go to the secretarys office.
This smallness led to a close-knit community within the department: six faculty members and fifteen graduate students. We all knew each other quite well and met for coffee most afternoons. We also had a college-wide seminar in the evenings a couple of times a month where speakers from different fields of chemistry and chemical engineering would lecture. Eventually that was moved to the afternoon and then it just disappeared over time. Now people are more narrowly occupied with their own area. Those seminars were very useful. They provided a wide window on the chemical world.
What are you currently working on in the laboratory?
I am also very interested in drug-delivery systems these days. Many people are trying to deliver drugs in a regulated way. For example, we can put a polymer coating around the drug that regulates the rate of delivery. We have to choose the right polymer and thickness to control the rate of release. I am particularly interested in this because of my son. He is a professor at Georgia Tech who works with transdermal drug patches. How do these patches work? What is the solubility of the drug in the polymer? We need to understand how the drug gets out of the patch, through the skin and into the bloodstream.
What else are you working on?
What are your thoughts about the education of our undergraduate
The classic way to achieve this is to have our students take more courses in other areas, or have special courses, like culture for engineers, but this is not a feasible option. Compared to other Berkeley curricula, we currently have the highest number of academic requirements for our undergraduates; they are worked quite hard. More important, when culture and engineering are in separate courses, the materials arent integrated and the students often fail to see the connection. But there must be a way to incorporate the humanities into our teaching. For effective broad education, we need to integrate the material into the chemical engineering courses themselves. I think most professors would be willing to do it, if they had help; we need books and educational materials. I think teaching our students, maybe ten minutes, twice a week, saying something about how engineering relates to the rest of the world would be helpful. I have started to work with the Berkeley Center for the Study of Higher Education. We are about to submit a major proposal to a private foundation to develop and collect case studies.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
I have been happily married for 45 years; my wife has been a tremendous help to me in furthering my career. I have a New Yorker magazine story in my office that explains why chemical engineers make good husbands. Chemical engineers tend to be steady, reliable and conscientious. Many women like that. But other women think were dull. I think both are correct.
How do you spend your spare time?
I am also a music fan, particularly Mozart. I have a large collection of opera and chamber music and am going to the noon concert today, after this interview.
I am also an avid reader, mostly non-fiction. Two of my favorite recent books are a biography of John Nash, an economist and mathematician from Princeton, and a biography of Knut Hamsun, one of Norways most famous writers. In recent years, I have been much impressed by the history-of-ideas essays of Isaiah Berlin. I also like the subtle humor in David Lodges novels about academics and their prejudices. Occasionally, I watch specific television shows, though not very many of them. I am absolutely hooked on Masterpiece Theatre. And I enjoy Wall Street Week. Their advice isnt worth much but they have some pretty good jokes.
What advice would you give to scientists just starting out?
Also, try to find an area where there is expertise around you, on the Berkeley campus, not necessarily in the College. If you can take an idea from another area, it can be a catalyst for your own research. The basis of creativity comes from finding the connection between two separate areas.
The great joy in chemical engineering comes from its versatility. Many of our alumni go into other fields such as medicine, law and banking but they all agree that their early training in chemical engineering was the preparation for their successful careers