Dr. Rod Wasylishen’s Journey from “Handy Andy” Chemist to World Class Spectrometrist
George Bernard Shaw once said: “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” If that’s true, then Dr. Rod Wasylishen [MSc/70, PhD/72] was the most upstanding teenager growing up in 1960’s Vermilion, Alberta.
Young Wasylishen was fascinated with chemistry, thanks to the vivid lab demonstrations by his Grade 10 science teacher. It wasn’t long before Wasylishen set up a lab in his parents’ basement, and a scientist was born.
“Thanks to the local pharmacists in my home town, I soon was able to obtain basic supplies to perform numerous experiments in a book entitled, “Handy Andy Chemistry – Work and Play in the World of Chemistry” which I purchased from a Handicraft store in Saskatoon. [It] had 106 experiments which were touted as being safe. For example, ‘Preparing Oxygen’, ‘Preparing Hydrogen’, ‘Preparing Ammonia’, ‘Producing Hydrogen Sulfide’ (rotten egg odor), ‘Fireworks from the Spice Cabinet’, etc. Needless to say, I had a great time doing these experiments.
“One day I had a major explosion doing this experiment which scared the daylights out of me and my dad yelled, “what the _ _ _ _ are you doing?”. Fortunately, I somehow survived “Handy Andy Chemistry” without losing more than a few eyebrow hairs, minor burns and making a few holes in my clothes from acid spills, etc. I still have the book!”
After high school, Wasylishen attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, completing their Chemical Research Laboratory Technology program. He found work at Atomic Energy of Canada in Pinawa, Manitoba. Deciding that he wanted to expand his education, Wasylishen left to pursue his undergrad degree at the University of Waterloo, graduating in 1968. It was there that he encountered two entities that would change his life forever: his future wife, Valerie and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR).
In his third year at Waterloo, he encountered a young professor, Terry Gough, who was in charge of his Physical Chemistry lab. Gough offered Wasylishen a summer job in his lab, and it was then that he learned how to use the NMR spectrometer and to interpret the data.
By the late 1960’s, NMR was emerging as a powerful tool for probing the molecular structures of organic compounds. Wasylishen had read articles in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry by the UofM’s Professor Ted Schaefer. Impressed with Schaefer’s research, Wasylishen applied for and was granted a position in his lab.
“I arrived in Ted’s office in mid-May 1968 when he was about to leave for Argonne National Labs, just outside of Chicago, for the summer. He handed me a box containing 20 to 30 substituted benzenes and asked me to analyze their proton NMR spectra in both benzene and cyclohexane as solvents. It was a pretty frustrating summer, many of the compounds were essentially insoluble in cyclohexane; others had very complex spectra that I could not analyze, etc. At the end of the summer Ted returned and eventually I had enough nerve to ask him if I could order a series of substituted benzenes where I could systematically vary one substituent. He said, “Of course. Here is the Aldrich Chemical catalog; order what you want.” Once the samples arrived I finally was able to make progress and never looked back.
“I think it was towards the end of my third year at Manitoba that Professor Schaefer and I stopped at the Montcalm Pub for a beer or two and I was relaxed enough to ask him why he gave me that box of random samples the first day I arrived in his lab. He replied, ‘I wanted to know if you would sink or swim!’ I will never know if he was serious or just having me on.”
Four years after arriving at the UofM, Wasylishen left, having completed a Master’s in 1970 and a PhD in 1972. During that time, he produced not only two theses but fifteen papers which were published in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry. A National Research Council post-doc at the Laboratory of Chemical Physics at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland filled up the next two years, after which Wasylishen was hired by the University of Winnipeg for his first independent academic position in 1974. Near the end of his time at the UofW, Wasylishen went on sabbatical and learned about the NMR of rigid solids and the “cross-polarization/magic-angle spinning” (CP-MAS) techniques, which became the basis for his research ever since.
In 1982, Wasylishen moved to Dalhousie University, where he spent eighteen years before returning to his home province in 2000 to take up a position at the University of Alberta. He officially retired in July 2014, but is still active in the scientific community, recognized as one of the most highly respected NMR spectroscopists in Canada and around the world.
Public recognition has been a regular part of Wasylishen’s career. Over the years, he has been honoured by his peers with many fellowships (Canada Council, Chemical Institute of Canada, Royal Society of Canada, etc.), chairs (Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Physical Chemistry), lectureships (UofM Centenary Betts Lecturer, etc.) and awards (Gerhard Herzberg Award from the Spectroscopy Society of Canada, etc.). Wasylishen hasn’t become jaded by the attention, however:
“To be honest, I am always flattered to be the recipient of an award or honour; however, I often wonder if there were not more deserving candidates. In the case of this award (Honoured Alumnus, 2018), I am truly delighted to be recognized by the University of Manitoba, Faculty of Science – this means a lot to me as I spent four formative years at the U of M.”
Wasylishen has shepherded many students through his lab over the years. When asked which role is more satisfying: being a mentor or being a researcher, he affirms that both are important to him.
“Being a mentor and a researcher go hand-in-hand. I have had undergraduate students ask me questions that never entered my mind as well as questions that I could not answer definitively. While such occasions can be embarrassing, they often lead to a deeper understanding of a concept for both me and the student(s).
“Supervising graduate students has been particularly rewarding because I have been able to watch them mature, become critical thinkers and experts in their field. During their studies, I have tried to work together with them in answering research questions, and helping them become more skilled in communicating their research. Along the way they have answered many questions and taught me a lot about science and the world.
“In my opinion you cannot be a researcher without mentoring students. This is probably the most rewarding experience of being an academic.”
Wasylishen cites his parents, his teachers, his co-workers and most importantly his wife, Valerie, for help and support throughout his journey. He remembers with fondness his days at the UofM, both academically and personally.
“I benefitted from all of the graduate classes that I took at Manitoba. The professors all had their own style but overall they were excellent. I still have notes and old exams from Bryan Henry’s class that dealt with Symmetry and Valence Theory. Very important as well were the many friends that Val and I made during the four years that we were in Winnipeg. Although more than 45 years have passed since I first walked into Ted’s lab, we still keep in touch with many friends that we made back then!
“Finally, I could not have chosen a better supervisor or place for graduate studies and for that I am forever grateful.”
Dr. Wasylishen is one of seven outstanding Alumni being honoured at the upcoming 2018 Faculty of Science Careers in Science – Pathways to Achievement Honoured Alumni Awards event.
What: 2018 Pathways to Achievement Honoured Alumni Awards
Topic: Careers in Science, Alumni and Student Mixer
When: Thursday, February 1, 2018, 3:00 p.m. (Doors open), 3:30 p.m. (Panel starts)
Where: Marshall McLuhan Hall, 2nd Floor, University Centre, University of Manitoba, Fort Garry campus
Reception to follow, all are welcome to attend.
Individual department events also planned. More details to follow.