Oral history interview with Mark W. Grinstaff

  • 2005-Sep-19 – 2005-Sep-20
  • 2005-Sep-22

Mark W. Grinstaff was born in Texas, the elder of two sons. His father was in the United States Air Force, and the family moved a number of times during Grinstaff's childhood. He has lived in Japan and at least six states; his longest time in one place was when he was in college. His father was an administrator who brought troubled hospitals up to standard. His mother stayed at home until her children were in high school, and then she became an accountant. His brother became a hospital administrator and joined the military, just like their father. Grinstaff stayed in Redlands, California, for high school; he liked his chemistry, biology, and physics classes, at which he had to work hard. He also played tennis and was very active in Boy Scouts of America. Grinstaff attended Occidental College. As a sophomore working in Franklin DeHaan's kinetic chemistry laboratory he fell in love with lab research. He had vacillated between medicine and international relations before this, but now he was sure he wanted to be in science. To help pay the bills, Grinstaff worked in the hummingbird section of a museum for his first year; after that he became a teaching assistant in a chemistry lab class. His experience at the museum convinced him he was less interested in biology than chemistry. By his junior year he had decided that he wanted to do research, not go into medicine, and he declared a chemistry major. Grinstaff chose graduate school at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign because they had a strong inorganic chemistry department and because it was not California. There he worked in Kenneth S. Suslick's laboratory; his doctoral project used sound waves to make amorphous iron and protein-microsphere compounds. Here he talks about wider applications of his doctoral research; his own management style versus Suslick's; what he likes best about being a principal investigator; writing journal articles; and his patents. Rather than working in industry he decided to do a postdoctoral fellowship. For his postdoc, Grinstaff conducted research on electron transfer and catalysis in Harry Gray's laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. While there he met the woman with whom he eloped on the way to his first job. Here he discusses Gray's laboratory management style as compared to his own, and speculates on the source of one's ideas. Grinstaff accepted a position at Duke University and foraged for equipment to set up his lab; he prefers to spend his money on people. Here he explains his research making diagnostic devices based on DNA electron transfer, designing single molecular-weight polymers, and polymers for ophthalmic wound repair. He continues with more clinical applications of his research; the issue of patents; commercialization of his research (he has founded two companies); his current research projects in biomaterials chemistry and nanotechnology; and the impact of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences on his work. Grinstaff felt Duke did not provide an environment conducive to interdisciplinary work. He was very interested in many things, from lasers to biochemistry, and did not want to be "put in a box." He had co-founded two companies by then. He accepted a position at Boston University, with a joint appointment in chemistry and engineering. He talks about his lab makeup and management; his administrative and teaching duties; funding; biomaterials chemistry; grant writing; and his future research plans. He gives his opinions on a variety of common issues in science: the dearth of minorities; the falling-away of women as they attain higher positions; lack of science literacy in the United States; competition and collaboration. He concludes by describing how he and his wife, also a PhD chemist, balance their home life with their work life.

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