INDEPENDENCE, Ohio—Roderic Quirk knew he wanted to be a teacher as early as he can remember.
After all, it was his teachers that he most admired and respected growing up. "Plus, I always had a thirst for learning," said the professor emeritus at the University of Akron. "I loved to study and learn new things."
He recalls how the instructor for his first freshman chemistry class just loved what Quirk called "real chemistry."
"He'd talk about cold tar chemistry. Acetylene chemistry. How it was made and manufactured, and how sulfuric acid was made," Quirk said. "I just found it fascinating."
Of course, in a career that has spanned more than a half-century, Quirk didn't spend all his time in the classroom and laboratories. He made sure his research and—therefore that of his students—had a grounding in practical applications in industry.
And as one of the most relevant authorities in the field of anionic polymerization, Quirk was named the 2019 recipient of the ACS Rubber Division's Charles Goodyear Medal, the highest honor awarded by the Akron-based technical association. Quirk received the medal during the Rubber Division's recent Spring Technical Meeting in Independence.
Quirk's research in anionic polymerization used alkyllithium initiators in hydrocarbon solution, technology used to make butadiene, isoprene and styrene homo and block copolymers, solution SBR, polyisoprene, polybutadiene and its hydrogenated derivatives, according to Sergio Galvan, research and development advanced technology manager for Grupo Dynasol. Galvan was a student of Quirk's and nominated him for the Charles Goodyear Medal.
"These polymers are of the most useful ever produced, and are used in many applications, including adhesives, engineering plastics impact modification, ABS and HIPS production, tires and oil viscosity index improvement," Galvan said in his nomination letter.
He added that Quirk's "fundamental work has been widely recognized by the rubber industry, as demonstrated by the fact he has consulted and lectured for most of the major synthetic rubber companies, who have also supported his research."
Born in Detroit, Quirk attended a brand new high school in the Detroit suburbs that was college-prep oriented. There were young teachers there that he said were aggressive and always encouraging students to do their best.
"It provided an outstanding background for me to go to college," Quirk said.
It also is where he met his wife, Donna, when he was 15 and she was 14. They dated during high school, went their separate ways to college, but then started dating again and were married before Quirk graduated from college.
His grandmother always encouraged him in education. "She had a rock solid approach to life that was very influential for me," Quirk said. "She would wake up every day and tell me, 'The world was full of such wonderful things. We should all be as happy as kings.' I follow that everyday."
His undergraduate studies were at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. One of his friend's fathers was involved in the alumni association, and he told Quirk about a fellowship.
But even with the tuition scholarship, the school wasn't sure Quirk's family could afford the rest of the financial obligation. "My mother and my grandmother wrote back and said, 'Don't worry. One way or another, we'll make it.' "
Rensselaer was a small college environment, with only about 4,000 students. Quirk, who grew up very active in sports, also thought he may have a chance to play sports at the college. He did end up playing football as a fullback and linebacker, though the team never won a game in any of his three seasons.
He hadn't decided on a major when he started. The college primarily was an engineering school, and his first semester he had to take engineering drawing. He wasn't very good at it, receiving the only "C" of his college career.
But the freshman chemistry program was interesting. It combined attending lectures, with sessions several times a week with a professor in smaller groups working on problems.
"I loved chemistry, I loved the lab and it just kind of fell into place," he said.
While he was just a "plain chemistry major" in undergraduate school, he took organic chemistry, one of the courses used to weed out pre-med students. While most didn't like it, Quirk did.
"Then I took a course in mechanism and structure: physical organic chemistry," he said. "It just opened up the world to me. If you understood 10 basic reaction mechanisms, all of this other stuff fell into place."
Quirk decided he wanted to be an organic chemist, and applied to a lot of different schools. He chose the University of Illinois, where he studied under Professor David Curtin. He earned both his master's and doctorate in organic chemistry there.
He said he learned to do high-quality research under Curtin, and had to give seminars on fundamental subjects. "I chose one of the hardest things I had ever chosen: acidity functions," Quirk said.
That was followed by two years of postdoctoral research with Professor E.M. Arnett at the University of Pittsburgh's Mellon Institute. Quirk wasn't happy there, having to be in competition with another post-doctoral student who he said wasn't a good experimentalist but could generate all kinds of numbers, something that impressed the adviser. Arnett, though, did give him a chance to write up their research and present at an international conference.
Quirk tried to leave after a year but there were no jobs open, so he waited another year.
At that point he took a post as a faculty member at the University of Arkansas, where he stayed from 1969-78. Quirk said it was a doctorate-granting institution with about 100 graduate students. Many fellow faculty members received support for their research from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. He said the school drew high-quality, regional students who had no desire to go to the East Coast or West Coast.
"The first couple students I had were among the best students I ever had," Quirk said. "They were bright and excellent experimentalists."
He and his students started doing research on high dilution solution calorimetry on organometallic compounds, something that hadn't been done. Quirk knew that one thing required in academic research is to raise money. As he started reading about organolithium compounds, he found they were used as initiators in polymerization.
"I had never seen an equation on polymerization," he said. "I thought this may be a way to justify the kind of research I was dong at this point."
So Quirk told the department chair he wanted to offer a course in polymer chemistry. The chair said the school would offer it, and if the students signed up, he could teach the course. About 20-25 students, both graduate and undergraduate, signed up.