John Prausnitz

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?
I was attracted to Berkeley because of Joel Hildebrand. I had read his books as a graduate student at Princeton and I greatly admired his work. Also, the presence of Pitzer and Brewer were magnets.

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?
Chemical Engineering at Berkeley was very young when I arrived since it had only come into being in 1946 and had a slow start. One of the reasons for this was that the first professor had become ill and died soon after he started to develop a Chemical Engineering program. Also, chemical engineering had started simultaneously in two places, in the College of Chemistry and in the College of Engineering. Engineering had a program called process engineering with nearly the same curriculum as chemical engineering. There was a lot of disagreement as to where chemical engineering should be located.

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 that’s 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 secretary’s 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?
Harvey Blanch and I have had a very successful collaboration for the past ten years. We try to establish applied biothermodynamics. Also, Clay Radke and I have been working on next-generation contact lenses. Right now, if you wear contacts, you have to take them out and clean them, take good care of them to avoid eye infection. Or you buy disposables. What we are working on are contact lenses that would be semi-permanent; you could leave them in for close to a month before cleaning, at least that is the hope. There are lots of issues that come up and we have not yet reached our goal. Radke is a former Ph.D. student of mine and it is most gratifying to work with him.

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?
I am currently writing a book with J. Z. Wu at UC Riverside about applications of statistical mechanics in chemical engineering. There are many books out there (Prof. Chandler has written one of the best), but they are not primarily application-oriented and for most students, they are too high-level. Wu and I are trying to write something that will be useful for beginners that emphasizes modern, high-tech applications.

What are your thoughts about the education of our undergraduate students?
Ah, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I am troubled by what I consider the intellectual isolation of chemical engineering and the College of Chemistry. We perform very well here, but I don’t think we pay enough attention to the social sciences, the arts, the humanities, and philosophy. In today’s world, we need to know more than just science, we should understand its place in the world, know more about ethics and sociology, about how science and engineering interface with culture.

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 aren’t 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?
After some thought, a smile crosses his face. Unfortunately my greatest achievement at Berkeley has disappeared. I lectured in 219 Gilman Hall for many years, and on rainy days the students’ rain gear would litter the room, making somewhat of an obstacle course. I tried for quite some time to convince the authorities to do something about it, to put up some sort of coat racks and umbrella stands. But I got the usual bureaucratic run-around. Finally, fed up, a few of my graduate students and I went to the hardware store and bought a bagful of hooks and screws. We put up 20-30 hooks on the wall for raincoats and umbrellas, and rainy days were never the same. The hooks were there for about 30 years. Of course, now offices have replaced the classrooms and the hooks are gone.

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 we’re dull. I think both are correct.

How do you spend your spare time?
Well, I enjoy hiking, but I’m not a mountain climber. I like the kind of hiking where you take a train or gondola up the mountain, walk around for a while, find a nice chalet for coffee and cake, then take the train or gondola back down the mountain. That kind of hiking is rare in the U.S. but easy to do in Europe, particularly Switzerland. In the Bay Area, I like to pack a lunch and hike in one of the many parks we have here.

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 Norway’s 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 Lodge’s 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 isn’t worth much but they have some pretty good jokes.

What advice would you give to scientists just starting out?
Hmm, that’s a tough question. I would have to tell them: choose a field, a research topic that you truly enjoy, not a fad. Fads come and go, and I’ve seen a lot of fads over the years. One impediment to this is financial pressures. Fads are funded while they’re hot, but then that’s it. Do what you like to do and interact with other scholars, including those from other departments, who can broaden your horizons. In any field, knowledge grows at the field’s boundaries, not in the center.

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

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