From his time as a student of William Jackson, one of the founders of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), to getting Norfolk State University’s materials science program off the ground, Carl E. Bonner Jr. has a decorated past that continues to propel him as an independent researcher. His research passions include inorganic and organic chemistry, electrochemistry, nanofabrication, and optical spectroscopy—a list so varied you might call him a jack of all chemistries. Isaiah Speight spoke with Bonner about his early inspirations. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Education: BS, 1982, and MS, 1985, Howard University; MS, 1991, and PhD, 1996, University of Rochester
Current position: Professor of chemistry, Norfolk State University
First job: Scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins in high school
fun project he’s been working on: I play in a band and at blues jams when I can get away.
Isaiah Speight: So, Dr. Bonner. Can you briefly describe your research?
Carl E. Bonner Jr.: My research grew out of the work of Norfolk State University’s Center for Materials Research, which was started in 1994 to make solid-state rare-earth laser materials for NASA. We were making laser materials made of single-crystal oxide glass with neodymium or other rare-earth ions. I did the optical spectroscopy of crystals grown by another group and of prototype lasers fabricated by a third group in the center.
My interests have since grown to include a fair amount of nonlinear optics of materials. This allows me to put a finger in a lot of different pots, which is what I enjoy. These range from things like working on generating piezoelectricity by using laser excitation as a heat source, to promoting electron transfer across interfaces for nonlinear optics, to being able to follow chemistry by performing electrochemistry on metamaterials, which can give us control over the refractive index of a material.
IS: I’m on more of the synthesis side, so I’m wondering: Could your techniques work in monitoring inorganic transformations?
CB: We can monitor the current that passes through as either products or reactants in an electron-transfer reaction. Take for example one of the simplest chemical reactions imaginable: transfer of a single electron to or from an iron surface. If the reaction is set up properly, it can be performed reversibly. From there you can look at the effect of the environment on the electron-transfer rate and just measure that rate as a function of current caused by the transfer of electrons. It’s interesting because I don’t work much on the synthesis of the materials but rather on the effect of their environment.
IS: That is interesting! Speaking of things being interesting, when was the moment you got interested in applied research?
CB: When I started college, I thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist. The MCAT convinced me that I wasn’t going to be a physician. I decided to change gears and attend Howard University’s graduate program in chemistry.
I was fortunate that I met Professor William Jackson during my time at Howard. Bill was a top scientist in a field that I knew nothing about. He also reminded me of my dad both in his demand for excellence and his direct manner. Bill had a big influence on me because what he was doing at the time didn’t fit my image of what chemistry was. His group was doing astrochemistry using high-resolution laser spectroscopy and computer simulations. So I decided to take a course of his in Fortran programing that was focused on chemistry.
Turns out I was more familiar with Fortran than he was, and at the time, I wasn’t shy about pointing it out. So he pulls me aside and says, “You can sit there and be quiet, or I can give you a project. Your entire grade will be based on the project.” Silly me chose the project. It was much more interesting, but it was the most challenging thing I had ever done up to that point. Not only did I have to learn quantum mechanics of rotational-vibrational spectroscopy, but I had to do the computations on a computer with 32 kB of memory and a text-only monitor and printer. I only got a B+, but it introduced me to a world of research that I never knew existed. I was hooked.
IS: So it seems that your time with professor Jackson really propelled you forward and inspired you. When you think back to that time, what one skill did you find most useful in your personal career?
CB: I can think of several. One, let people know what your research group wants to accomplish. With Bill, we were always clear about the big picture, but to a large extent we had the freedom to arrange things to meet a specific objective. Bill was always willing to tell you that you were wrong. He was good at giving clear feedback. He never expected you to not tell him what your plans were. He would say, “Just because you were wrong today doesn’t mean you were wrong forever.” As a result, to a large extent, we weren’t afraid to struggle. We didn’t take it as a character flaw.
Two, make sure you are communicating in concepts, not words. If you share the concept, you can learn the word for a concept in any language or vocabulary. At that time in graduate school, the Jackson group was interdisciplinary, with students from chemistry and physics. So we had to find a common language, which turned out to be quantum mechanics. The interdisciplinary nature of the group not only made me an interdisciplinary, independent researcher but has also helped me find a common language with students.
IS: So here’s a fun question. What would you be doing if chemistry, in all forms, were off the table?
CB: Well that kind of wipes out a big part of the map. First, I need to thank my wife and family for graciously sharing me with my students and colleagues. I would take the opportunity to spend some more time with my family. Aside from that, I took up guitar around Christmas of 2010. Depending on who you ask, I’m either getting better or louder.
Hometown: Portsmouth, Virginia
Education: BS, Norfolk State University, 2016
Current position: PhD candidate, chemistry, Vanderbilt University, working in Timothy Hanusa’s lab
Favorite lab tool: A ball mill. I’ve come to love mechanochemistry so much I try to use it over traditional synthesis.
Best professional advice he’s received: To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is not to be present at all.