INDIANAPOLIS—It didn't take Eric Baer long into his career to figure out his place was in academia.
He had earned both a master's and doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and spent 3½ years at DuPont in Wilmington, Del., where he learned about polymers.
It was there working in the Polychemicals Department (later the Plastics Department) that he learned about what he calls the "triangle" of research, where the focus is on the relationship between the structure, properties and processing. It is a method that he said can be implemented across many different platforms of research.
But while he felt he was liked by DuPont management and his managers were disappointed when he gave notice, working in industry was not where his heart was.
"I felt after doing all of this hard work studying, I liked the idea of going into advanced teaching," said Baer, currently the Herbert Henry Dow Professor of Macromolecular Science and Engineering at Case Western.
And its seems he made the right decision, as he has spent nearly six decades teaching at the college level, all but the first two at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
During that time, he has built a polymer department from scratch, served a stint as a dean, worked in conjunction with industry partners, directed several research centers, authored more than 650 publications, edited a number of journals, gathered a wide range of awards, and focused on a variety of research areas.
And to top it all off, Baer is the 2018 Charles Goodyear Medalist from the ACS Rubber Division, the most prestigious honor given by the Akron-based technical association. Baer was honored during the Rubber Division's recent spring meeting in Indianapolis.
Baer's family came to the U.S. from England in 1947, so they could join his father's relatives. He was taken out of a British private boys school when he was 15½, finishing high school at Baltimore City College.
He had no siblings. His father owned a small store, selling mostly women's garments, and his mother was a housewife "in the old tradition." He was interested in science, but had a lot of interests.
"I was quite poor, so I had to work—nights and on Saturday, and in the summer," Baer said. One summer he worked at the Baltimore waterfront, another summer converting hot dog machines and yet another addressing envelopes for a General Tire sales promotion.
Baer finished high school at age 17 and moved onto Johns Hopkins. He didn't receive an undergraduate degree as he participated in an advanced program, where he first got a master's in synthetic organic chemistry in 1953, followed by a doctorate in 1957, studying convective heat transfer.
"I defended my thesis just before I was 24," he said, recalling that he wrote about drop wise condensation, with an emphasis on heat transfer and finding ways to cool atomic reactors.
After that was his short stint at DuPont, from where he left in 1960 to begin his career in academia as an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Illinois.
"I just decided that I wanted to go into a teaching and research career at the time," Baer said in an interview at the Rubber Division meeting in Indianapolis. "Polymers were highly needed at that time in academia. There were very good opportunities in the field."
Building from scratch
He didn't stay there for long either, leaving after two years to join what was then called the Case Institute of Technology. Baer said in the early 1960s it was like a "miniature version" of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before merging a few years later into a comprehensive university.
While polymers are still understaffed at universities today, it was an emerging discipline at the time, with very little competition.
Baer, who turned 86 on July 18, went to Case for the opportunity, but also apparently found a home, as he is about to finish his 56th year at the institution.
"I was promoted to an associate professor and I was given the green light to build the polymer and engineering program," he said.
That became the Department of Macromolecular Science & Engineering, at the time the first polymer department that included both undergraduate and graduate degree tracks.
The first thing he did in putting the new department was hire three full-time faculty members from the outside, and also utilize three Case professors in the Chemistry Department who featured polymers in their course work.
"I also got some funding from the Ford Foundation at the time to build this program," Baer said. "But we had to raise money, as every private public school today does."
His pitch was the focus on the "triangle" that he had learned at DuPont, with particular emphasis on ordered structures, crystalline structures and complex structures. It was difficult to raise funding, and one of his first wins was from the Manufacturing Chemists Association on a competitive request for proposal program.
"I did win that, and that gave me a little money, and the administration was very happy that they could now say he raised a little bit of money by himself," Baer said.
And the resources were nothing like the million-dollar laboratories that are common at research institutions today. Except for benches, gas and water, he said if you needed something you built it yourself. For example, when he was interested in studying crystallization of polymers under high pressure, he built a crystallization chamber.
Other early research focused on such matters as polymer melts and the process of nucleation, all performed with what he called "Rube Goldberg" type of devices. But Baer believes that the equipment never should be the main focus.
"The instruments help, but they don't create," he said. "The instruments by themselves are tools rather than creative enterprises."
During his address to Rubber Division attendees, he outlined four examples where the triangle was instrumental, and it wasn't the machinery or instruments that were key. The examples included: reinforcement of an already ductile material; working in conjunction with Dow on a new class of thermoplastic elastomers, using metallocene as the catalyst; work on discovering a new phenomenon related to surface elasticity; and layered film structures that are elastomeric, an area he is working on now.
"These four examples would not have moved forward without the ideas, and recognizing the importance of those ideas," Baer said.
The department still functions today, he said, among only a handful of universities with formal polymer science and engineering departments. A number of other schools have polymer studies that emanate from other departments, such as chemistry, chemical engineering or material science, an approach he said can work with proper funding.
Baer said there still is an advantage to having a formal department because it gives the program a great deal of academic legitimacy. "But the funding is equally important," he said.
Love for teaching
From 1978-83, Baer served a five-year term as dean of science and engineering at Case Western. He views the dean's job as a liaison between the president and the faculty. He said in general deans are underappreciated and overworked.
"When you're dean for five years, you think about whether you want to be a college president," Baer said. "I decided I did not want to go into academic administration."
He said he had the opportunity during that era to become a college president, but when his term as dean was over, "I went right back to the bench to become a professor."
What he likes most about teaching graduate students is to see the progress they make over a period of time. "I enjoy seeing their transformation from what they are like when they come to grad school and what they are like when they leave," he said. "They're different people. Those five years of technical and intellectual development and maturation are what is really exciting to the teacher."
He doesn't spend too much time teaching them to run an instrument, or learning how to interpret data. That is the routine part of eduction, things that can be learned in a text book. You need to know some math, chemistry, physics and engineering, but the foundation is a given.
"I like them to learn how to think originally," Baer said. "It's the defining of the goal-setting of a project, and the way you can climb the mountain to the goal. The path in climbing that mountain to the creative goal is important. That is what I try to impart in grad school."
Baer has taught roughly 80 doctoral students during his tenure, and he likes to stay close to his former students. They've gone into diverse areas, from large chemical companies to some as college professors. One even is using her talents at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, studying old paintings.
Andy Olah, one of his former students, was Baer's presenter at the Rubber Division awards luncheon. Olah spent about 30 years in industry, working at what was once a B.F. Goodrich operation in Brecksville, Ohio, and through its various ownership changes, with it now part of Lubrizol Corp. For the past 4½ years Olah has been back working with Baer as an adjunct professor at Case.
"He always had a very dynamic research group," Olah said. "What he practices with the group even today, he did back then. That was the diligence and the development of the individual to be a good creative scientist. To be critical of their work, rather than just assume it's going forward."
Range of research
Throughout his career, Baer's research has branched out into a wide variety of areas, including:
- Development of hierarchical structure and function of natural and polymer systems;
- Investigation into the fatigue, impact resistance and fracture of polymers; and
- Study of advanced polymeric films and layered systems.
But the diversity, he said, came from the triangle approach of the study of polymer process, structure and property relationships.
"Whether it's elastomers or a thick thermoplastic or a film for packaging, or whether it's a nanofiber, it all comes from that triangle and from the macromolecular structure of what we make," Baer said. "It is diverse in the end use, but it is not as diverse in how we approach the subject in the triangle."
Of course, often times the research has followed where the funding flows. "In recent years, the funding has been very good in the film area," he said. "Advanced packaging and film systems are a big growth area, along with food or pharmaceutical packaging."
Through the years the federal government and non-profit worlds have been a significant source of funding, as has the industrial world. Two major sources he has gotten support from over the years have been the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation.
Funding priorities constantly shift with the priorities of the country of the time.
Baer also has had close interaction with industry over the years. They are good sources of fellowships and scholarships, funding for universities and consulting work.
Olah said Baer was instrumental in the design and development of the curriculum at the Midland Molecular Institute in Midland, Mich.
And Baer cites his long work with Dow in developing what became the Engage-brand elastomers, a new class of elastomeric polyolefins.
But the Charles Goodyear Medalist doesn't like to dwell on past accomplishments, concentrating on today and the future. He did say, though, that it's important to learn from history.
"I learned that scientific papers written a century ago are extremely valuable, and the internet doesn't cover that," Baer said. "And students don't go back enough into those types of publications."
His current work has an emphasis on using polymers as security features, and some environmental areas. "We're interested in certain models that can model very high energy collisions, like when a meteor strikes the earth, and simulating that in polymers.," Baer said.
As one who has received his fair share of awards, he said the Charles Goodyear Medal is special, and he thanked Case Western for allowing him to pursue his work all these decades.
"It's particularly rewarding because this was a medal that was in honor of an individual who is very close to where I presided over 50 years," Baer said. "Folks who surround that industry is where I live. To be recognized by the area of where I have spent 50 years is very touching."