LASTING LESSONS • Fall 2002
Washington University's superb teachers have changed the lives of the students who have learned from them. Here, three alumni describe faculty whose lessons will last a lifetime.

Curt Thies, Professor of Chemical Engineering

Claudia Wright:

"Curt was pretty unusual: He was less interested in money-making research and more interested in his students. Students somehow know when a professor really wants to teach them, and there was never any question about Curt.

"Even though his research had direct, real-world applications, he shared this knowledge with his students and loved to see them use it. He didn't keep his discoveries to himself.

"The breadth of his research projects was tremendous; microencapsulation is commonly used today in pharmaceuticals to achieve 'sustained-release' forms of medications. One of his projects involved the use of microcapsules for fertilizing mushrooms: By putting fertilizer into a microcapsule that dissolves at a known rate, mushroom growers need to fertilize less frequently.

"Curt's materials science course was also very practical—it was always 'hands-on.' He would say: 'Now, let's see how this works!'

"When teaching materials science, you want to get across that if you use the wrong materials something will go awry: Your tank might corrode, or maybe it won't corrode but the substance inside the tank will turn pink! He often shared such stories from alumni.

"There is a lot of art in both microencapsulation and materials science— and so many possibilities that you could never calculate. As a student, you have no idea where to apply all the theory you learn; Curt would say: 'This is what it means in the field.'"

Claudia Wright, B.S.Ch.E. '76, is principal quality engineer for the Tyco Healthcare Mallinckrodt Plant in St. Louis.

 


 

Daniel Shea, Professor of English

Sharlene Leurig:

 

"'Divine apnea.' Who would have thought of putting those two concepts together? Well, Professor Shea did: His way with words made just sitting in class listening to him talk enjoyable.

"Convinced I should become a physics professor, I started out as a physics major, taking Professor Shea's Masterpieces of European Literature course initially as an excuse to read books—I was alarmed at the prospect of doing nothing but math!

"The course had an eclectic reading list: from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, to Christa Wolf's 1980s reworking of the 'Cassandra' myth.

"Enjoying the balance of the arts with the sciences, and not wanting to be mired down in one way of thinking, I switched to a double major.

"Professor Shea is interested in how the history of science and scientific questions inform literature, in bringing the two kinds of thought together. So when Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen—based on questions surrounding the 1941 meeting between physicists Bohr and Heisenberg and the race for the atomic bomb—came to Edison Theatre, Professor Shea was involved in setting up discussions between the audience and physics and literature faculty.

"He showed me his proposal for a course that would include faculty from the sciences and humanities—to explore from each perspective some fundamental problems. 'Scientific' questions of determinism and the role of probability are concepts philosophers and writers have been grappling with for centuries.

"I am grateful for all I learned from him."

Sharlene Leurig, A.B. '02, is a patent examiner in Radiant Energy, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

 

 


Herb Weitman, Former Director of Photographic Services and former Adjunct Professor of Art/Photography

 

Jim Olvera:

"Do something you enjoy—enjoy what you do. This was the key lesson I learned from Herb Weitman. And Herb knew the value of doing what you enjoy; he was always excited about his work.

"In class Herb gave assignments, but the program was mostly self-directed. Because you learn something new about photography every time you pick up a camera, you look at the world in a different way.

"Once I shot several photos unrelated to any assignment and showed them to Herb. I think it was this enthusiasm that made him go to bat for me when, in my junior year, I decided to change from a joint major in engineering and architecture to one in photography. He facilitated the switch despite opposition from some.

"Coming from an analytical and technical background made it easy to get into photographic techniques, but I had a tendency to shy away from photographing people. Herb didn't just encourage me but pushed me into it. He must have known somehow that I had it in me: 'You need to do this,' he would say. And doing it was a revelation, more rewarding than anything I'd done. Now, photographing people constitutes most of my work.

"Starting out as an artist you can be haunted by the fear that without someone else giving you the impetus, you won't be able to come up with your own ideas. Because Herb's course was not teacher-driven, I knew I could do it. This was a great confidence builder.

"It's also hard initially to conjecture where your creativity might take you. Herb was always involved in long-term projects. Almost without knowing, I've found myself doing that, too—continuously seeking a new approach to a particular subject over many years."

Jim Olvera, B.F.A. '78, is a commercial photographer based in Dallas.