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Alum Professor James Halpert (University of Connecticut) shares his memories of UCLA chemistry classes in recent issue of Journal of Biological Chemistry.

A Professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology at the University of Connecticut, Dr. James R. Halpert earned his B.A. in Scandinavian Languages at UCLA but his chemistry classes had a huge impact on him and his career path. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Uppsala University and his M.S. in toxicology from the Karolinska Institute.  

In his abstract, Halpert states that the major goal of the article is “to provide lessons that may be useful to scientists in the early and middle stages of their careers and those more senior scientists contemplating an administrative move.”

Excerpt from “So many roads traveled: A career in science and administration” Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC):

Chemistry student at UCLA

It was natural for me to major in chemistry, and I chose UCLA because I wanted to stay close to my high-school girlfriend. 1967 was a very turbulent time in our country, and life was very confusing. On the one hand, I had the trappings expected of a young man at that time, namely longish hair, beard, and sandals. On the other hand, I was a true chemistry nerd. An example of how the conflict played out in me is that I basically flunked the perpetual love-ins of the day. The music always started several hours late, and generally I would flee back to my chemistry studies, rarely having heard any music. Nonetheless, I did manage to hear more organized concerts by many of the legendary groups of the ’60s, such as Jimi Hendrix, the Animals, the Doors, and the Byrds. My brother and I had a small band, and we even earned some money. I remember when we arrived at a university dormitory to play and saw a big banner outside that said “Live Band Tonight.” We looked at each other in disbelief. We did fine, but the next lesson is this:

L5) Imposter syndrome is real. 

Finishing the chemistry labs at UCLA on time was a true feat of preparation and organization. Otherwise, I would get trapped behind a long line of students trying to use the lone balance. Before each lab, I wrote down and visualized exactly what to take out of my locker and when and what I needed to do. That way I could be first in each line for common equipment. The obvious lesson here: L6) Success often requires intense preparation, discipline, and focus. 

Our freshman chemistry professor, Edward Graham, managed to make even the most obscure aspects of chemistry come alive. The highlight of the year started inauspiciously. One day I received a letter inviting me to attend an awards ceremony but without stating why. I felt really shy about going but thought it would be rude if I stayed away, and I arrived at the last second and stood in the doorway. The next thing I remember is that I was named outstanding freshman chemistry student out of around 1,000 students. I was astonished but did not feel like an imposter. At the same ceremony or shortly thereafter, I received a National Science Foundation undergraduate summer fellowship. Naturally, I asked Dr. Graham whether I could work in his laboratory and was so honored when he said yes.

Ironically, the main lesson from my summer experience was the same one I did not quite learn in junior high, namely to ask for the right kind of help. My project in the Graham lab involved the use of a complicated manifold, consisting of glass tubing and stopcocks, which was designed to allow me to trap products of the gas-phase reaction I was studying. Unfortunately, I was always breaking the manifold and never managed to master glassblowing. I had to ask a graduate student to make repairs for me, when I should have asked for a different project. I concluded that I was a wizard in the classroom and in cookbook labs but inept at real research. That feeling definitely impeded my eventual decision to embark on a Ph.D. 

My personal frustration during this summer of 1968, my general feeling that the fabric of our society was unraveling, and the fact that all my friends had left LA for college created a great urge to do something different. When I received a letter from UCLA offering me the chance to spend my junior year abroad, I was very excited. For a variety of reasons, I chose Sweden as the destination and never looked back. My second year at UCLA was devoted largely to learning Swedish any way I could (courses, movies, books, and the Swedish Hollywood Club).

Early years in Lund

I arrived in Sweden in August 1969 knowing just enough of the language that I was slightly more proficient than most of my Swedish peers were in English. I loved living in the small university town of Lund, where I could get around by walking or on a bicycle. Because I really wanted to learn Swedish, I started by taking university courses in social sciences. My second semester, I studied organic chemistry for 10 weeks full time. Nonetheless, I fell far behind in credits for a chemistry major at UCLA and did not even consider taking more than four years to graduate. I decided to attend law school upon receipt of my bachelor’s degree, for which I could major in any subject. I picked Scandinavian languages and literature and decided to get a head start by staying an extra semester in Lund and studying Old Icelandic, using my very modest inheritance from my paternal grandfather to support myself. I was in a class with only Swedes who were training to become school teachers of their own language. Although I actually understood the Icelandic, I could not translate it into perfect Swedish and failed the final examination. The lesson here: L7) No matter how hard you try, there are some things that you will simply not be able to do. (The professor was kind enough to pass me on an oral makeup exam, probably out of sympathy.)

I returned to UCLA for two quarters and obtained my B.A. However, despite an excellent result on the Law School Aptitude Test, I realized that law school was not my true interest. In a quandary about my future, I decided to return to Scandinavia and was able to secure a Danish work permit through a friend of my parents. Upon arriving in Copenhagen in August 1971, I learned that the job offer had been rescinded. Fortunately, with a Danish work permit, I could apply for a Swedish permit from Denmark. I managed to find a part-time job at Lund University Hospital, working for Dr. Mario Monti, an Italian physician who was pursuing his Ph.D. 

Read the full article here.

The above article was originally published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Author: James R. Halpert, 

Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, School of Pharmacy, University of Connecticut, 

Edited by F. Peter Guengerich J. Biol. Chem. (2020) 295(3) 822–832Author(s). © 2020 Halpert. Published under exclusive license by The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Inc.

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry,