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Olah Gets Top Honor from American Chemical Society

Olah Gets Top Honor from American Chemical Society

A conversation with Nobel Laureate and 2005 Priestley Medalist George A. Olah

By Eva Emerson
March 2005

Ten years ago, USC’s Distinguished Professor George A. Olah received the highest honor in science, the Nobel Prize, for his key discoveries in chemistry. In March, Olah joined thousands of chemists in San Diego to celebrate his award of a lesser-known but personally meaningful honor—the Priestley Medal.

During the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Olah was officially honored as the winner of the 2005 Priestley Medal—the society’s highest honor—for distinguished service to the field. Olah spoke at the event, giving the Priestley Medal Address, entitled “Proud To Be a Chemist.”

“I’m very appreciative of the honor,” he told Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), a weekly publication of the ACS, in an interview, noting that receiving the Priestley was especially gratifying because it celebrates work done throughout his career, as opposed to a single area of his research.

In giving the award, the ACS cited Olah’s many accomplishments as well as his recent work on the concept of a “methanol economy,” which could provide a new source of fuel to meet energy needs as the supplies of cheap oil and gasoline dwindle.

The full text of his lecture, as well as an in-depth biographical article called “A Love Affair with Chemistry,” appeared in the March 14 issue of C&EN, which featured Olah on its cover.

At 77, Olah, the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Chair in Organic Chemistry in USC College and the director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, has made substantial contributions to fundamental and applied chemistry over the past six decades. His work on hydrocarbon chemistry has had important impacts on society—his discoveries have led to improvements in the production of gasoline, plastics and pharmaceuticals, to name a few.

At an October 2004 symposium and dinner held in honor of the 10th anniversary of Olah’s 1994 solo Nobel Prize in chemistry, USC Provost Lloyd Armstrong, Jr. saluted Olah, describing him as “a visionary, a genius and an extraordinary Trojan who has helped the university in countless ways.”

Recently, USC College spoke with Olah about his career in science at USC and in a globalized world.

Q: You have won a startling number of honors over your career—the Nobel, the Grand Cordon of the Order of Rising Sun of Japan, and now the Priestley Medal. That’s not including the dozens of awards and recognitions from universities and scientific academies around the world. What has that felt like?
A: All of this individual recognition over the years has been rewarding, but all of the work I’ve done has been accomplished with my fine colleagues, students and associates. I am more or less just a spokesman for our collaborative effort. Recognition is good for the ego. It’s good for your group and your school. But it’s not the most important thing.

Q: For many years, scientists left their native countries to train, and often remained, in the U.S., leading to what was called the “brain drain.”  Now, people are talking about “brain gain.” Are more scientists returning to their native countries than in the past?
A: During the second half of the 20th century, the U.S. became the leading scientific power in the world and it still is. Science, like any human endeavor, is not practiced uniformly in every nation. The U.S. has a very strong base in science and technology, and has created a research atmosphere that helps scientists to live up to their potential.
    Things are, however, changing. As possibilities to pursue science in other countries improve, I think more people who study here will go home. Many countries are acquiring the same level of facilities we have. Facilities in Germany, Japan, etc. for example, are quite comparable to the U.S. now, and in some cases even better. The leading role of the U.S. in the sciences is not something that will automatically last forever.
    But wherever you are, it’s not easy to succeed in the sciences, because your competition is so fierce. I don’t think that’s something most people realize.

Q: Do you mean the competition for grant money?
A: Not for grant money. For achievement. Obviously, you need support for research. But even if you have very little support, you can do outstanding work. It’s most important to choose [what you research] carefully.

Q: Has science become more internationalized in recent years?
A: Science is and always has been an international enterprise. You know, there is no separate American science or German science or Indian science.  A scientific finding doesn’t stop at national boundaries.  The Internet and other electronic means allow instant communication between scientists all around the world and these have been of tremendous advantage in creating new collaborations.
    We always have been an international group at the Loker. Our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows came from all over. They came here because of the work we were doing—it’s similar that if you want to become a conductor, and you want to enhance your career, you go to study with one of the leading conductors of the world.

Q: So you’ve trained quite a few young scientists over the years?
A: I was fortunate to have more than 250 graduate student and postdoctoral fellows. I always felt that my [professional] relationships represent my scientific family. My former associates and students, we still meet for get-togethers, we keep in touch. Even in science there are family trees. And my own little family is also quite substantial now.
    My own scientific family tree starts with Emile Fischer, who was probably the premier organic chemist of the 20th century. And I happen to be a scientific grandson of Fischer. Professor Fischer had many scientific sons and grandsons, a number of whom have won Nobel Prizes. Regretfully, there are no scientific daughters or granddaughters on that family tree, because as you probably know, science was and to some degree still is male dominated.

Q: Have you seen the balance of women and men pursuing careers in chemistry change?
A: It’s changing. It’s slow, but it’s changing. Don’t forget Madame Curie was a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and physics.

Q: Have you been back to Hungary since you emigrated in the 1950s?
A: My wife [Judith Olah] and I did not return to Hungary until the mid-80s. We have gone back regularly in recent years, and I am trying to help science in my native country. The Loker has a cooperative arrangement with Szeged University in southern Hungary, and younger Hungarian scholars regularly come and work with us.

Q: How has the international reputation of USC changed during your tenure here?
A: I think we’ve taken substantial steps forward and there are increasingly more areas [at USC] that are attracting talented students from around the world—in the sciences, but also in the humanities and so on. Building up the reputation of a university does not happen over night—it’s a long process.
    I’ve been most impressed by the fact that the quality of our undergraduate students has really improved. That is a great thing because it means that talented young people see something here that attracts them.
    You asked about improvements at USC. The fact that you are interviewing me—a scientist—I consider this substantial progress because at the time I first came here [in 1977], if anybody was ever interviewed at USC it was the football coach. [Olah laughs.]