Comments Email Print

James McGrath, professor of polymer chemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, speaks in precise words. His career, too, can be neatly divided into two halves, industrial research and academia.

From 1956 through 1975, he worked as a research scientist at Rayonier Inc., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Union Carbide Corp. Then McGrath switched gears to become an assistant professor at Virginia Tech's Department of Chemistry in 1976. He's still there.

``I now have the highest position that they offer here, a university distinguished professor,'' he said.

So which does McGrath prefer, the classroom or the industrial laboratory?

``I actually enjoyed them both and I think I did them in the order that was best for me,'' said McGrath, 62. ``I did the industrial side of the game first and learned to appreciate many of the important issues that private businesses have to face, and I was later to apply that to the academic game.''

Industrial experience made him a better teacher.

``Students appreciate learning about the real world,'' he said.

At university labs, students work on basic, ``pure research.'' In the real world of the Goodyears and Union Carbides, teams of polymer chemists tinker with molecules under pressure to create commercial products.

Because of his background, McGrath stands in both camps. At Goodyear in the early 1960s, he helped improve synthetic rubber, developing polymers that remain big sellers today. At Carbide, he worked on engineering thermoplastics, silicone copolymers and the commercialization of the gas-phase method to make polyethylene, called the Unipol process.

McGrath, like many polymer scientists, is a passionate defender of fundamental research. Since 1989, he has directed the National Science Foundation's Science & Technology Center, at Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg, Va. The center focuses on research in high-tech polymer glues and composites like those used to bond airplane parts together.

McGrath called NSF the most-important source of support for fundamental research in the United States today.

Polymer scientists say that cutbacks in research spending by lean-and-mean companies and the government could cause the U.S. plastics industry to fall behind other countries, where governments subsidize basic research.

Universities are feeling the pressure, McGrath said.

``Historically we've done quite well, but the trends are not good. One has to continually justify the connection between basic research coupled with education, and how does it translate into an improved standard of life for society in general, such as food, clothing and transportation.''

It's that real world again, knocking at the door.