The words “deeply saddened” are overused. But yes, I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Nobel laureate and Professor, Dr. Richard Heck. I also was troubled to read that he lived for years in failing health and with severely depleted finances due to his illnesses.
As Student American Chemical Society President at the University of Delaware, I was privileged as an undergraduate to work within his laboratory. For two years I saw first-hand that Dr. Heck combined brilliance and compassion in an unusual way. The first time I watched him map out new chemical processes on the chalkboard, I was dumbfounded. How could anyone conceive of such groundbreaking ideas so quickly and so effortlessly?
Such brilliance didn’t come without consequences, though. One day, hours before I was due to come in, a graduate student completely blew up a lab room while implementing Dr. Heck’s ideas. No one was seriously hurt.
A stupid and classic mistake: I misplaced a decimal in a calculation and wasted hundreds of dollars of palladium materials. Dr. Heck could have fired me on the spot. He didn’t. Instead he used the instance as a teachable moment and I re-did the work. Like the old carpenter’s rule to measure twice, maybe even three times, and then cut once, from then on I always double and triple checked my chemistry calculations.
Dr. Heck won his Nobel Prize for developing a modern, sophisticated reaction to cross-couple carbon atoms and thereby build complex molecules. This reaction, called the “Heck reaction” in his honor, uses palladium as a catalyst. It is hailed for its usefulness in many, many applications, including electronic display screens, DNA sequencing, and most importantly drug development.
My wish is that this write-up may cause you to remember one of your own beloved professors, who has had a memorable impact upon your life.