Career Goal: Engineering
AS: So I went to City College and chose chemical engineering because I wanted to be an engineer. But I liked chemistry, so that’s really how it came out. I liked chemistry and I liked physics, but I thought chemical engineering was one of the broadest of the disciplines.
CGW: For a person like you, MIT would be a perfect fit.
AS: It was just great. They got a great graduate student group. Almost every school you go to, there’s always that innate respect amongst the better students. They get to be some of your closest friends. But it was so uniformly good, the class that they had. And the professors were gods of chemical engineering. These are the guys who wrote all the textbooks. So you talk about a heady atmosphere. It was like I had died and gone to heaven.
CGW: What about the role models and mentors in your studies there, or the lack of them? Here you were in school at MIT, very few blacks there. But on the other hand, you’re in the premier department.
AS: Jim Porter and I certainly were the only two in chemical engineering. I think there was another somewhere. I’m sure there must have been other black students at that time. Maybe your research shows that, but this was 1958 in the graduate program. There must have been some others, but I didn’t see them. Not that I would have—I mean, you get into your own department primarily. I was married at the time. You don’t go to a whole lot of fraternity events.
First Black PhD in Chemical Engineering at MIT, 1962
CGW: I don’t know whether it was you or Jim. Do you remember which one finished first?
AS: I did.
CGW: That’s what I thought. I have a list of all of you. And I think certainly in your department, you may be the first.
AS: I think Jimmy Wei, who was head of that department for a while, now he’s dean at Princeton, told me I was the first to get a PhD. In fact, he did research when he was president of the AIChE, American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He thinks I’m the first black to get a PhD in chemical engineering at a school which is accredited.
Faculty Influences: Memorable Figures
CGW: In chemical engineering, yes. You were the first, certainly at MIT, to get a PhD in chemical engineering. But again, are there any people or highlights you recall during that period?
AS: During that period, I think my colleagues and fellow students had a similar feeling. We looked, at least I looked, upon all the professors there as role models. This was the greatest life ever because they were at the top of their fields, they were highly respected in the industry, they were doing exciting research, they had the combination of independence and time for consulting and starting businesses. At the same time, they were teaching youngsters. I just thought they were all great role models. I can’t single out any particular one.
There were some like Professor Reid, who was an expert in thermodynamics. He particularly seemed to be friendly and encouraging to me when I enrolled. There were maybe a handful in the department whom we didn’t sense warmth from, but that could have been their nature. But certainly Bob Reid is an example who stands out. Of course, my thesis advisor, Professor Michaels, was very encouraging. I said, “Gee, I’d love to be like Alan Michaels.”
The MIT Education: Thought, Analysis, Judgment
CGW: So when you reflect on your overall experience at MIT, identify what you consider of special significance.
AS: Well, it doesn’t really help in any particular insights, but, of course, I got the world’s greatest education—not only in just the subject matter, but more importantly in looking at a problem fundamentally and thinking it through, being analytical yet using judgment. There was big emphasis on the aspect that while calculations can be done, everything can’t be calculated exactly, particularly in chemical engineering. We have got to make some reasonable guesses. That can lead you creatively to other new areas.
So I was well equipped, and it’s a real strong point. I think it still is in education at MIT in chemical engineering. That was really, really one of the strongest points. It taught me how to think and think creatively, and also build that confidence that is so important that you can take on almost any problem and you’ll sort out the solution. Each problem is amenable to analysis. You may not get it fully there, but you’re going to get close enough.
Career Directions: Choosing Industry Over Academia
CGW: So you finished your degree. What happened next?
AS: At that time then, for sure, I knew I’d like to go into industry, not teaching. This is now 1962 and I was interested in oil companies. I interviewed with Chevron, Mobil, Shell, Texaco, Amoco, you name them—and I got offers from them all. I decided to work for Mobil because they were just forming a new chemical company, part of their oil business. Of course, the oil business was the main business, but the chemical business they were just starting to get into—where you take products from crude oil refining and make plastics and chemical intermediates. They were forming a new research department, so it was exciting. That’s why I went with Mobil.
Process and Product R&D: The Case of Polypropylene
CGW: In terms of that first entry-level position that you went into, I noticed that at some point—I don’t know whether it was that point, but at some point—you began to do some very significant work that created a number of patents.
AS: During that period, it was almost like the heyday. I guess many people had gone through a phase in research that they think of as a heyday. There were new materials coming out at the time. Polyethylene, polypropylene, polybutylene, and polyesters were just really processes in the early stage of development. These were becoming huge businesses. So there was the excitement of working in these areas. My job was to work on more efficient processes for making these materials or come up with new approaches for making them. During that phase, I did a number of patents. It was really like plucking cherries. There was so much excitement and so many new areas that you could just go so many different ways and contribute.
Again, with the training I had at MIT, I was confident there was no problem that couldn’t be solved. Mobil had started a new process for polyester intermediate and scaled this thing up to commercial scale without really having done a good job on defining the process. I had only been there a year and they sent me down to Beaumont, Texas, first time I went to Beaumont, to see if I could straighten out the problems they were having with this commercial plant. It was just a terrible situation. Mobil had built a plant that was not functioning, the yields were awful, and at the same time a similar plant based on that design was being built. They didn’t wait. They were going to really rush into this business.
So we came back with some ideas. We reduced it to practice in our laboratory—actually set up equipment on a bench scale to simulate the particular problem area—and then showed that we could change the catalyst that they were using.
CGW: Now was this a team or just you?
AS: A team—myself, a research engineer, and a technician. I was the group leader at that time. I was leading the work with the ideas for setting up the experiments and the way you can simulate on a little bench scale the process for purifying this material. On a smaller scale you can quickly look at a number of different catalysts. We knew the general family of metals that we should be in, but we knew that we were looking for one that was particularly selective and wouldn’t destroy the product being purified. And we found it. We replaced palladium on carbon catalyst with platinum on carbon. And that did it. Mobil went immediately to that process and it did well.