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Hratch G. Semerjian

After 25 years with NIST, this acting director has no shortage of enthusiasm for what he does

August 23, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 34


Hratch G. Semerjian is someone who knows a lot about the National Institute of Standards & Technology. He has spent more than 25 years working his way up from bench scientist to his current position as acting director, and he has enjoyed every step along the way.

"NIST is really a unique place to work," Semerjian says. "I often tell people that you don't come here to get rich because there are many, many other places to do that. This is a place to get a lot of personal satisfaction and recognition for outstanding research."

Semerjian began his scientific training as a mechanical engineer major at Robert College in Turkey, earning a B.S. in 1966. He continued his studies at Brown University, where he earned a master's degree in 1968 and a Ph.D. in 1972, both in engineering. "At the time, Brown didn't have a chemical engineering degree," he says. "But my major was in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics, which are basically the building blocks of chemical engineering," he notes.

From Brown, Semerjian took a postdoc position in physical chemistry at the University of Toronto. He then moved to industry to do research on combustion systems at the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Division of United Technologies in East Hartford, Conn. After about four years, he made another move, this time to what was then the National Bureau of Standards.

"I came to NBS in 1977, just after the energy crisis," Semerjian recalls. He joined the institute to do combustion research at what was part of the Office of Energy Programs. While the program of combustion science for energy was new, he notes, NBS had a long-standing program in fire research.

"I interacted with the people in the fire research program because we had common interests and some collaborative programs," he points out. However, there were differences in the two groups' study of combustion. "As I used to say, 'they were the undesirable fire guys and we were the desirable fire guys,' " he recalls with a smile.

As Semerjian moved away from day-to-day research and more toward administration, he tried to keep his hands in the laboratory as much as possible. After all, he will always be a scientist at heart, he notes.

"I remember when I became a division chief, I was determined to continue my research involvement. I actually moved one of my laboratories to a space right across from my office so that I could stick my head in there and talk to the people."

But finding time to actively participate in the research was difficult. "When you have a division of 80 to 90 people, you just have too many other issues--funding, personnel, and programmatic issues--to deal with," he explains. "While it's nice to stick your head in the laboratory and see what's going on, making technical contributions was history," he says.

Now that Semerjian has been out of the lab for a number of years, he admits that he is "happy to leave the research to younger minds." He points out that chemistry has made a real transition from bulk- to atomic-level research.

Chemistry has also become such an underlying science that it is hard to separate it out as a unique discipline. In fact, he notes, research in general is moving toward being more interdisciplinary, something that is reflected throughout NIST.

Since leaving the laboratory, Semerjian says it has been an honor to enable the work of many of NIST's talented researchers. "It's really a pleasure to have been the director of the Chemical Science & Technology Laboratory and to be the acting director of NIST because you become the messenger to tell others about all the good stuff that is going on here," he says, adding that this is especially satisfying in a place like NIST where there is so much exciting research going on.

Besides, he asks, "what is there not to like about being deputy director or acting director when you have such a tremendous staff?"


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