Informal Inorganic Chalk Talks by Students and Postdocs

A great place to meet students and faculty, and learn about research at NU. BIP is held every Friday afternoon from 3-4 pm in Tech K140.

For more information, please contact the BIP Meisters: 
Lam-Kiu Fong and Michael Graham

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(Chemical & Engineering News, Vol. 79, April 2, 2001 / Mitch Jacoby / C&EN Chicago, Page 62)

Nine o’clock on a lazy Saturday morning. The perfect time for a graduate student to roll over and go back to sleep. Unless, of course, the student happens to be in the inorganic chemistry division at Northwestern University. In that case, it’s time to get up and head over to the campus. BIP starts in an hour.

For more than 50 years, inorganic chemistry students at Northwestern have gathered on Saturday mornings to hold a group meeting. Once upon a time, the attendees were few in number and included just the research groups of Fred Basolo and Ralph G. Pearson, who collaborated closely for many years. But the numbers grew when inorganic chemistry professor James A. Ibers came to Northwestern in the mid-1960s. Ibers recognized that his students could benefit from attending the informal chemistry discussions, so he joined. Over the years, members of other inorganic groups also attended the meeting, further swelling the ranks.

The time-honored tradition continues today. Even the name, which stands for Basolo-Ibers-Pearson, is still used and is well known at Northwestern and in national and international inorganic chemistry circles, despite Pearson’s having left Northwestern long ago. The simple acronym, which is credited to Kenneth N. Raymond - a student with Ibers and Basolo in the 1960s and currently a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley - is a little word that holds big memories for a lot of inorganic chemists.

“I remember the group meeting with fondness,” says Alvin L. Crumbliss, a chemistry professor at Duke University. “Those were great times. We learned a lot.” Crumbliss says the group meetings, which evolved into BIP while he was a graduate student, were held on Saturdays because “Fred was sending us a not-so subtle reminder that we were expected to come to work on Saturdays.” Basolo concurs.

As with all cherished traditions, BIP is not without its fair share of customs. It used to be that Basolo or Pearson would call upon a student to give a research progress report - without warning. Later on, students were warned ahead of time when it would be their turn to talk about their work, but the impromptu nature was upheld by the ground rule that banned visual aids. Chalk and a blackboard were the only props allowed.

“Sure, you were pretty nervous about being called on. Especially as a first-year graduate student,” Crumbliss recalls. “But it was good experience and eventually the nervousness wore off.”

Nowadays, a pair of student BIP masters runs the show. Appointed for one year as masters of ceremonies of a sort, the students “find the victims and let them know when their 30 minutes are up,” Ibers explains. According to today’s rules, two student presentations are given each week and speakers are permitted to show a maximum of two transparencies each. Students begin their talks with a short biographical sketch that identifies where they are from and where they went to school.

“BIP brings together a lot of inorganic chemists to ask questions and make suggestions about ongoing research,” Basolo says. But more important, the Saturday morning meetings “give students the opportunity to think on their feet. That’s a valuable experience,” he adds. Ibers agrees. “There are some circumstances, particularly in industry, when you may be called upon to give a ‘chalk talk’ without much warning.” BIP provides a forum for giving spontaneous presentations. By all accounts, BIP is an inorganic chemistry success story. “It’s one of those institutions in this department that has worked very well,” Ibers remarks. “It has really helped to make the inorganic division a cohesive group.”

California Institute of Technology’s Harry B. Gray is all smiles thinking back to the early days of BIP. “We had the place to ourselves on Saturdays. It was quiet and a great time to get together,” he comments. “I got a lot out of those meetings.” Gray adds that students particularly benefited from their science discussions with Basolo because “he had a way of getting you really interested in the subject.”

Crumbliss remembers things similarly. “It was really exciting to see Fred’s encyclopedic mind at work. In those days, we were working on organometallic reaction mechanisms and just starting in the new areas of nitrogen and oxygen carriers. Fred had a great deal of chemistry to share with the students.”

Ibers comments that one can get a good sense of the way Basolo operates as a teacher by watching him in action at BIP. “He’s always very kind to students telling them about a lot of chemistry spontaneously. Yet he keeps them on their toes in the usual pedagogical ways by easing them out of their mistakes. He has always been very effective in this way as a mentor even to students who were not in his research group.”

For more than five decades, Fred Basolo has chatted on Saturday mornings with inorganic chemistry students about their research. His easy manner with students has led him on more than a few occasions to challenge young scientists to explain chemical observations or predict the outcome of reactions, often wagering a staggering 25 cents in the process.

“My limit’s always a quarter,” he says, laughing. “Over the years I’ve lost a few quarters, but by and large I’ve won most of the bets.” It’s all part of Basolo’s engaging teaching style. “The kids know I’m going to ask a lot of questions on Saturday.”