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Thursday, February 11, 2016

CROSSROADS: On to Graduate School

Last month I posted on my crossroad decision to leave the sugar industry in Hawaii.  I was very much helped by C. Brewer, the oldest company West of Denver, for they actually continued paying my salary while I attended graduate school.  They insisted, though, that I attend Louisiana State University, for that campus had the only advanced sugar technology program in the world, which happened to be in the Chemical Engineering Department, my major at Stanford.   

Also too, my interest then was in automatic process control, and the two  foremost professors (they were the ones who wrote the first texts) in the nation, Paul Meurill and Cecil Smith, were in the ChE Department there.  I was also provided a fellowship by LSU, and my wife Pearl worked as a nurse, so in Year One we actually saved money.

Paul (left), one of the nicer guys in this world, was ChE Department chair and went on become Chancellor.  Cecil became a rich consultant, and we got together a couple of times after I left the campus.  I used their book on Fortran IV Programming (still on sale 45 years later at Amazon.com for $63.28) when I taught my very first course at the University of Hawaii.  Actually,  you can also still go to Amazon.com and order a paperback version of this book for 41 cents.

We ordered a new Plymouth Barracuda, white with  red stripes, picked it up in Los Angeles and added a special sound system.  Our first stop was Las Vegas.  Unfortunately, symptoms of the flu appeared the night before, so Pearl drove the next day.  Forgot where we stayed, but gambling that night cured my flu.  Here is a spectacular photo of our car (left vehicle) in Davenport, Iowa.

had applied for married student housing, but had not received any feedback.  So my first stop when we got to Baton Rouge was to visit the LSU Housing Office.  I inquired, and the lady I talked to said she just had on her typewriter (hey, this was 1968) a letter she would be sending me giving us the good news.  So for three and a half years we stayed at this subsidized  new apartment complex in easy walking distance of the Chemical Engineering Department.

These were the days of Pete Maravich, who still holds the NCAA average of 44.2 points/game.  If 3-point shots were then allowed, it is speculated that he would have averaged 57 points/game.  He suddenly died in 1988 at the age of 40.  

Saturday night at Tiger football games were also legendary.  Known as death valley, in those days, women wore gowns and men jackets and ties to games.  Most were seriously inebriated, so the noise was deafening.  There was also profuse barfing.


There were festivals each weekend in Louisiana:  crawfish, suckling pig (Cochon de Lait). jambalaya, Cajun, Zydeco, shrimp, creole, Po'Boy, gumbo and, of course, Mardi Gras, which is, of course, was yesterday, February 9.    However, the parades, with beads, began on January 23.  In 2019 Mardi Grass (also known as Fat Tuesday, the French meaning of Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday  for Christians and Pancake Day) will be on March 5.

After a semester on campus, I wrote back to C. Brewer and asked them if I could stay on until I got a PhD.  They said no, for the sugar industry did not need overly educated people, and told me if I didn't get back in one year they would terminate my salary.  However, I appreciated their attitude, and all my contacts (Bob Hughes and Bill Case) insisted was for me to let them know when I got back.  I later did and all I had to do was produce a sugar industry environmental report one summer.  I did do everything I could to keep them in business during my university years, but they liquidated in 2001 after 175 years of business in Hawaii.

Choosing one's PhD dissertation topic is a crucial decision.  You can't select anything too complicated, for you'll never graduate.  But that is my nature, so I built a microbioreactor to zap E. coli with a laser.  More specifically, I had to stimulate the appropriate DNA/RNA bond to either sterilize or further catalyze the growth of the microorganism.  Why was this foolish?  To begin with, it was not long after the discovery of the double-helix and invention of the laser.  At that time you still could not buy a tunable laser, so I had to build my own.  Read about the results in a 1975 edition of Applied Microbiology:  Irradiation of Escherichia coli in the Visible Spectrum with a Tunable Organic Dye Laser Energy Source.   

Turns out that what becomes a huge hurdle for some is the language requirement.  Basically, at that time at this university you had to score something like 500 on the graduate record exam to pass.  Remember, you're competing against majors who are applying to graduate school.  Many took Spanish because it appeared to be the easiest.  Some failed half a dozen times.  I always had a fancy for the French language, so, never having had any previous classes, took a two-week intensive course on how to pass the French Graduate Record Exam.  The instructor said do not guess, for they try to trick you.  Well, I always finish my tests, so I guessed, a lot.  I passed.  This might have been my greatest performance, or, more likely, luckiest.

Six months before graduation as a biochemical engineer, I made my next crossroad decision.  Where to go next.  There was no chemical engineering program at the University of Hawaii, but we wanted to go home.  So, I applied to the UH College of Engineering, and nowhere else.  This will be my next crossroad feature.  While I had some confidence, this was just another example of pure luck.  Here, just before we left Louisiana, a bayou photo.

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