The Women in Chemistry

Oral History Project


Juana Acrivos

Interview Transcript Portion:

JA:     I don't think I was homesick at all.  I had all the science that I loved; I took all the mathematics courses that I wanted and I excelled.  I never felt that I was a duck out of water.  They constantly talked to me about how bad the Latin American students were (including my future husband) how they cheated, how they flunked, how they didn't study.  And, you know, it just went over my back because I was doing so well and I was studying very hard and was out to prove them wrong.  I remember that the day before my very first class I read the entire thermodynamics textbook (written by the instructor F.H. MacDougall).  I don't think any of the other students was as prepared as I was because I was scared.  Now, the advice I give to my students today is, “Please be scared.  If you're scared, you will study and then you will gain the confidence of what you're doing.  You will know what you're doing.” 

TZB:  Do you like research as well as teaching or is it about equal?

JA:     Yes to both questions. Research is part of teaching and teaching is part of research.  If one doesn't do research a teacher goes stale.  You get bored.  I certainly would be bored if I had to teach my courses the same way more than once.  I started putting all my course notes in the World-Wide Web so that the students wouldn't loose time writing down notes.  I was told, “You know, it's a danger they won't come to class.”  My reply, “Tough they will miss the best part.”  A student who was watching me changing the notes (because they had been the previous year's notes) came to me complaining, “I was trying to get the notes and you were changing them.”  My reply, “Because I cannot give the same notes two years in a row.”  I love teaching but my teaching is also influenced by my research. I must explain why they want to learn from me, and there are always examples from research that can be used.  If one must follow a textbook it is a stale process; and the danger to be bored is always there for the teacher and the students as well.  I don't think good teaching without research is possible. 

TZB:  What kind of research topics have you worked on?

JA:     When I started out in graduate school, I started doing magnetic resonance.  I chose my advisor (John E. Wertz) because he was starting in the field (1952) and the challenge was to learn together with my professor.  First, I had to build the magnet components in order to build a spectrometer so I learned a lot.  My background was very good in theory, none in experiments so one has to learn what is necessary.  When I finished this task my professor said, “Okay, I helped you build the electron spin resonance (esr) spectrometer.  Now, you go find your own problem.”  So I worked on three problems.  One was in the solid state, the impurity ions in MgO.  I discovered Cr3+, Fe2+, Mn2+ and V2+ by just doing the esr analysis.  My professor gave the information on my analysis, innocently to people working at the University of Chicago and they published without any acknowledgement.  It was also the beginning of solid state science, say semi-conductors in the early 1950s.  I then discovered a new organic free radical for Professor F. Koelsch, he had submitted the synthesis paper before  World War II, it was rejected because he had no proof that it was a free radical, but he had kept the samples. He was very happy with my discovery. I was left the world's supply by both professors.  The third problem was in organic chemistry, and I discovered the spectra of a variety of semiquinones (single electron reduction of quinones which are involved in carcinogens). I used this work to write my D.Sc. dissertation at the Universidad de la Habana in 1956.  By then I was devoted to solid state sciences; the amount of mathematics necessary to interpret their properties was enough to keep me happy.  And so the solid state was my love from then on; there were a lot of problems that I wanted to solve.  I finished at Minnesota, got married in Cuba and looked for a post-doctoral position in California.  The only position available was in biophysics at Stanford University. I lived in Berkeley, did not know how to drive, so I learned and commuted. Biophysics research at the beginning was fascinating, I used my knowledge of semiquinones to get people started in the research about free radical formation in coffee, tea and especially tyrosine in 1957.  I started a lot of problems in biophysics. John E. Wertz asked me to teach a post-doctoral fellow from a distance all about biophysics and the semiquinones I was descovering.  But since I was not the director nor the principal investigator, I never got any acknowledgement. 

TZB:  I was going to say, how did you feel about that?

JA:     I resented it.  I resented it but didn't express it, as any young female scientist should do today. Recently I met him at the National Academy of Sciences and I asked him about the work I helped him with, he did not remember me at all, even though I had also met him personally in 1960, at Cambridge University and we had also  discussed then the esr spectra of semiquinones.  Though shocked I must understand the process.    So I work in areas that interest me but where the competition is fair.  There are difficult problems that one can contribute to solve, if ahead of the crowd.  The reason I have survived is because I have been ahead of the crowd with my ideas.  So, I did the first biophysics of semiquinones at Stanford University. Then I obtained another post-doctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley where I started doing research in condensed matter electrons and the conductivity of fluids (metal in ammonia solutions). In 1961 R. Livingston, a chemical kinetics professor from the University of Minnesota, who had recognized my abilities when I was a student, invited me to teach summer school there.  I really liked it.  So after two post-doctoral positions I was ready to teach at San José State.  My first proposal to NSF was on magnetic resonance and that's the one turned down because they said we didn't have adequate libraries.  That's okay.  My first support came from the Research Corporation for building an electron spin resonance spectrometer. Once I had the esr spectrometer I could go back to NSF and get funds for research.  I got a small research grant, $12,000.  And so slowly I built up a reputation.  You know, I don't publish very much. We must verify all the work.  I'm still scared of mistakes.  It's my principles.


Archives of Women in Science and Engineering
Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library