Published: July 27, 2021 By

Distinguished professor of chemistry notes rapid and positive changes during his 50 years on the CU Boulder faculty

The University of Colorado Boulder has changed unbelievably since the time I arrived as a postdoctoral student in late 1968. At the time I arrived, this was a fairly low-key university, with the exceptions of Keith Porter in molecular biology, Stan Cristol in chemistry and Ed Condon in the new institute named JILA. (George Gamow had already passed.)

I came to work with Lewis Branscomb, a senior NIST employee and the founder of JILA. All of my undergraduate and graduate degrees were, for very complicated reasons, in electrical engineering. My PhD thesis research, however, was in hard-core atomic physics! Everyone knew that I was looking for a position as a faculty member at CU Boulder, but the physics and electrical engineering departments showed absolutely zero interest in anything I that was doing!

Somewhat disheartened, I looked through the reprint request notes I had received from people who had read one of my publications and wished to receive a hard copy of it. To my great surprise, I discovered that electrical engineers and physicists could not care less about my work, but chemists seemed to be quite interested!

Carl Lineberger

Carl Lineberger is a distinguished professor of chemistry and a fellow of JILA.

With this background and a lot of help from my friends, I was fortunate enough to convince the Department of Chemistry to make me an offer as an assistant professor. Needless to say, I accepted immediately and began my career as a member of the faculty at CU Boulder in September 1970.

In the remainder of my career I had a number of opportunities to move to more "prestigious" universities, but none came even close to offering me the opportunities for multidisciplinary research in physics, chemistry and engineering that the University of Colorado/JILA had provided! The decision to stay here may well be one of the most intelligent things I have done in my entire academic career.

Over the years, I was extremely fortunate that the quality of my students and postdocs (and their work ethics) increased dramatically, and they truly provided the shoulders upon which my career was built! I am most proud of their collective achievements, for this is the true product for which any professor could aspire.

The one thing that has not changed in the time I have been here has been the work ethic of my students and postdocs; it has always been based upon their sense that we work as a team and that I would be among the first to get to work in the morning and the last to leave at night. They also knew well that I would be a very strong supporter as they pursued their own professional dreams.

Indeed, the best of my students will go (or already have gone) further than I! Nothing could possibly be more satisfied for a faculty member. I am thrilled to see that this point of view is even more widespread now than it was 50 years ago, and the character of the university has changed dramatically over that time span.

Another of the extremely important things that the CU Boulder leadership did for me was that they provided me the time that was essential for me to spend absurd amounts of time on the road, giving lectures at other institutions, working for the National Research Council, the National Academies and the federal government. Without this freedom it would have been impossible to do many things that, in my humble opinion, will turn out to be of considerable benefit both to me and the University of Colorado!

I could go on about this for hours, but the take-home message is that a relatively sleepy university morphed into a powerhouse in an amazingly short period of time. When I came here, Keith Porter and Edward Condon were the only members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Today we have around 25 such members and between faculty and joint faculty.

We have four Nobel laureates associated with creative work carried out at CU Boulder! Of these four, two are the graduate student/postdoctoral products of our physics and biochemistry departments!

It is so easy to be proud of this university in every way. It is precious and has taken unbelievable strides in a small number of years! All of these issues together have provided me with the best possible opportunity to carry out my career. I am most grateful for the support and help of everyone.

Carl Lineberger is a distinguished professor of chemistry and a fellow of JILA.