Dr. Robert Bachman: A reactionary career

Photo courtesy of sewanee.edu.

By Anna Püsök
Staff Writer

When asked how he became interested in chemistry, Dr. Robert Bachman shared his story with a smile on his face. “I had two great high school chemistry teachers. They were both enthusiastic and caring. I was also a natural science engineering person, even as a child,” he said. 

His academic interest changed when he was a student at Rice University. “I thought I was going to be an engineer. Then,” he explained, “when I was a sophomore in college, I was taking my first chemical engineering class and my first actual college chemistry class.” 

He continued, “That was organic chemistry, which by the way, everybody was afraid of. I found the visual and mechanistic thinking of organic chemistry beautiful, interesting and inspiring, while I thought the engineering was tedious math.”

At the same time, he was invited to work in the lab with graduate students and his chemistry professor, where he worked during his sophomore, junior and senior years of college. During that time, he changed his major to chemistry because he said, “I wanted to make molecules that never existed on the earth. I thought it was a cool puzzle. It had an artistic creativity that I didn’t know existed in science.” 

Bachman then worked toward a PhD at Rice University, moving from the organic field of chemistry to the inorganic. His inorganic PhD advisor encouraged him to apply for the Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship program, which he won and went on to work at the Technical University of Munich, investigating the unique chemistry of gold. 

Next year, Bachman will leave on sabbatical to return to Hidelberg, Germany, where he’s planning a collaboration with an organic chemistry professor. Their goal is to bring Sewanee chemistry students to Germany for a couple of summers, and also to bring German students here for a semester. 

When discussing such a collaboration, he explained that, “the goal is not only to get the research done as it could be, but to build a true international collaboration.” He continued, “We want to make it a better experience for everyone.”

Besides teaching, he’s conducting research, supervising and guiding usually between two and six research students. Bachman has mentored 62 students in his time at the University, as well as acted as the director for the First-Year Program. 

Bachman remarked, “[FYP is] a great opportunity to learn more, so I get to be a student again, which is fun.” 

He tries to think of new ways to present scientific thought to students who are more interested in other fields of knowledge. “If somebody is not a science student and I can give them the opportunity to see that there’s science in their lives,” he explained, “It’s a learning event!”

Bachman also serves as one of the co-directors of Office for Undergraduate Research. He was part of the group that transformed Scientific Sewanee to Scholarship Sewanee. He said, “We wanted to open the conversation to all areas of knowledge, so over the years, we expanded the program.”

When asked how he ended up being a teacher, he couldn’t give a straight answer: “I didn’t know how I ended up here. When I was a junior in college and moved into the chemistry world, I was given the opportunity to act as a lab teaching assistant. I enjoyed being in that room that way, but never thought about teaching.”

There was also a Rice University faculty member who he remembers. “He was such an amazing, caring and compassionate mentor… I took a class with him and when I went to his memorial, I realized that he probably planted a seed in me in terms of [how] I think about my job,” Bachman recalled. 

He still can remember that class’s motto that he took with him after 30 years: “Myth, power, values.” He reminisced, “Maybe that’s the reason I ended up as a faculty member… someday, I could be him.”

When asked what advice would he give to the students, he said, “Think about what you might want to know more about. What you might want to do down the road, not what you’re expected to do. Also, try to be unafraid of chasing some part of that dream. Nothing stops you if you just keep going. Focus on doing the best you can!”

He ended the conversation with a joke: “Be like one of this year’s Nobel chemists because his last name is Goodenough. So if you can be good enough, you can get a Nobel!”