Chemistry Lessons

by Bill Wadt '70

During junior year I was doing my undergraduate research project in chemistry with Prof. Bill Moomaw ’59. For the project I needed someone to build a zone refiner to purify the compound on which I was going to do ultraviolet spectroscopy. I also needed a special quartz container to hold my sample. 

Prof. Moomaw told me that in the basement of the Thompson Physics Lab there were two gentlemen who could help me. One was a machinist, and the other was a glass blower. Before I went to see them, Prof. Moomaw gave me wonderful advice. He said that they were both artisans and would respond better if I clearly acknowledged that what I was asking them to do was not easy and required great skill. I took this advice, developed great relationships with both men, and received amazing products from them that enabled my research. 

In addition to teaching me chemistry, Prof. Moomaw taught me that it takes a team with a variety of skills and perspectives to do cutting-edge research. That lesson served me well as I led research teams at Los Alamos National Laboratory, developing and applying science and technology to solve both critical national-security and basic research challenges. 

When I arrived at Caltech to work on my Ph.D. in chemistry, I soon recognized that the undergraduate education I had received at Williams was superior to my colleagues who were coming from places like Harvard, Yale and Caltech. As a Williams student I interacted closely with my professors in ways that generally didn't happen at other colleges and universities. Professor Moomaw not only taught me chemistry, he taught me how to be a scientist. 

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