Bart Bartlett, a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, was an ACS Scholar from 1998 to 2000, during his junior and senior years of college at Washington University in St. Louis. In this interview, Bartlett talks about what inspired him to go into chemistry and the importance of having an alumni network. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What motivated you to go into chemistry?
I got into chemistry largely because I had a good experience with chemistry in high school. I had a really good high school chemistry teacher, and I liked the subject. The summer after my junior year, I started doing research at the Washington University School of Medicine with the Department of Genetics. There’s a program called the Young Scientist Program. It was instrumental in getting me to see how a lab functioned. Unlike in a high school lab class where you got answers to the problem by the end of the class, there are no answers in the back of the book. That’s what got me excited about doing research.
So now that you have your degree, what is your motivation to continue to do research?
I’m genuinely excited about the problems that I work on, but for me, the biggest motivation is that I’ve got a group of six graduate students, a postdoctoral fellow, and about six undergraduates in my lab. It’s being able to see the next generation of scientists coming along and making discoveries. It’s also seeing them make mistakes in the lab—trying things that don’t work as they originally thought they would but then doing the creative work of figuring things out.
Did you ever have a turning point in your graduate studies where you really felt like you struggled with your motivations?
Totally. I worked on a tough problem in magnetism when I was in graduate school. I tried lots and lots of things in the lab, and it wasn’t for lack of hard work, but we just didn’t have the right hypothesis. It took until almost my last year of grad school to have sort of an aha moment. What sustained me, and still made it a worthwhile, fun endeavor, was that I had lots of lab mates who had good ideas. I was willing to try lots of things. I wasn’t just putting the blinders on and not willing to do experiments; I was talking through things and listening to other people.
How was the American Chemical Society a catalyst in your educational journey, and what advice do you have for current ACS Scholars?
I think there’s the obvious part that it helped in financing education, which is no small feat. It’s only getting harder now as the cost of education keeps going up. That was extremely helpful and ensured that I didn’t have to take out loans for books and room and board the last couple years of college. The advice that I’d give to current scholars is that there’s now a large alumni network. And as you go out and you’re presenting your work at ACS meetings, get involved. Participate in ACS Scholars activities just to get advice and ask questions about how to put graduate school applications together or apply for fellowships.
What is your favorite activity outside of the office?
It’s kind of exciting right now in my family. My wife and I welcomed a son, Simon, in December, so that’s a totally new part of life. I also have two dogs that keep me busy and make sure I get lots of exercise. I also play softball because, you know, I’m a chemist, and my baseball career was going nowhere.
Rebecca Leuschen is an ACS Scholar and undergraduate biochemistry major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. This series brings together current or recent ACS Scholars with early- or midcareer alumni for a conversation. To learn about the ACS Scholars Program or to make a donation, visit www.acs.org/scholars.