Elliot Richman was the kind of kid who would read the Merck Manual for fun. “I would walk to school and tell kids about leprosy or malaria. They may have thought I was odd, but they were also interested,” he says. Richman’s father was an oral surgeon in New York City whose patients included Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. “I never met them, but their aura pervaded my childhood in a way,” Richman says. Called “the science guy” in high school, he went to the University of Rochester to study biology.
Richman (seen at right) took organic chemistry his sophomore year of college with a professor who underwent a preacher to teacher transition. “That professor brought his conversion skills to chemistry, and I caught that passion from him,” Richman says. He switched his major to chemistry and freely elected to take advanced math courses, a move emboldened by his roommate Steven Chu, future physics Nobel Prize winner and U.S. Secretary of Energy. But his strongest skills lay in bench work, which led to his Ph.D. at Rochester and a postdoctoral program at Columbia University.
“I enjoyed writing my thesis more than anybody else I knew,” Richman says of his postdoc days. That realization led him to consider a career in science writing. He had no writing credentials but managed to connect with an editor at the Medical Tribune who handed Richman a stack of medical journals. “Pick an article from each of these, write a news story, and I will critique you,” the editor said. Richman sent in his sample clips and was hired immediately.
Richman enjoyed “imposing order on a chaotic world” as a writer and editor for many publications for 25 years. But after 9/11, he wanted to instill new meaning into his career by sharing his “head full of scientific knowledge” with young people. Richman says writing is all about “boiling down and focusing information for target audiences, and that is exactly what I do as a teacher.”
In his 15th year of teaching, Richman emphasizes that chemistry is more than a collection of facts and equations. “It is a story of human intellectual development over centuries,” he tells his students at Ramapo High School in Franklin Lakes, N.J. Richman says if his students retain only one thing after the final exam, he hopes it’s that “chemistry is demonstration that the natural world is knowable, albeit through hard work.”