Eric Baer is still in Cleveland teaching at Case Western Reserve University, nearly 40 years after he founded the internationally known Department of Macromolecular Science there. But when he graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1957, holding advanced degrees in chemistry and engineering, his specialty was convective heat transfer, not polymers.
"I really didn't know what a polymer was in graduate school," he said.
Baer, 67, recalled that his knowledge quickly grew after he became an industrial research engineer the same year.
"I actually learned the polymer business, the plastics business, at DuPont. And I consider those 31/2 years I spent there as sort of post-doctoral years," he said.
Baer quickly returned to academia. Ambitious and young, he saw a big need for advanced polymer education. In 1960, he became assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Illinois. Two years later, the call came from Cleveland's Case Institute of Technology (today CWRU).
Baer was 30 when he became the first polymer science professor at Case. A year later, in 1963, the polymer science and engineering program was started, with six faculty members. Several years later, CWRU christened the Department of Macromolecular Science, chaired by Baer. It was one of the first such departments at a major U.S. university.
This week, Baer will join the Plastics Hall of Fame.
"He played a very instrumental role. The department would not have growth if not for his hard work and his innovative spirit," said Les Sperling, a chemical engineering professor at Lehigh University, who nominated Baer.
Baer was chairman of the department until 1978, when he moved to become dean of science and engineering. In 1983, he was awarded distinguished professor status. Baer currently is the Herbert Henry Dow Professor, an endowed position. He also continues to edit the weekly Journal of Applied Polymer Science.
A bottom-line set of circumstances led Baer to the engineering field. When he was 7, his parents left their native Germany and moved to England.
"I was one of those lucky kids to get out, five days before the war started in Europe," he said.
They moved to Baltimore when he was 15. "I had to take summer jobs and at night also had to work, to help my parents," he said. Money was tight. Baer needed a career that paid well and could get him into the prestigious Johns Hopkins.
"And so that's the reason I picked engineering. Money and accessibility to a major program. But you know, it's been good to me," he said. When he speaks, the words come out in a precise manner, his voice tinged with an accent from his European past.
Baer is proud that CWRU, a private school, has strong links to business. Right now graduate students are working on improving barrier properties on PET soft drink bottles, predicting long-term performance of buried plastic pipe, and making films with thousands of layers.
In an interview at his Cleveland office, Baer explained his area of expertise since the DuPont days — relating the structure of a polymer to its properties. He moves to the chalkboard and draws a triangle. On the point at the top, he writes the word "processing," such as injection molding or extrusion. On the bottom two points he puts in "solid-state structure" and "properties." How do all three interrelate to create a product?
"I spend my entire days and nights inside this triangle, doing problems," Baer said.
Not that Baer is trapped in a box ... or his triangle. At lunch, he sometimes strolls to the nearby Cleveland Museum of Art.
In the 1970s, he found himself studying quite another type of macromolecular composite — tendons that link muscle and bone. He became an expert in the field of biomimetics.
"It's literally taking lessons from biology and introducing some of ideas into synthetics," he said. "I used the same tools for diagnosing the complex structure of something like tendons that I would for diagnosing the solid-state structure of polyethylene."
Researchers still use his writings on the hierarchical structure of biocomposite systems.
The man who studied polymer molecules found himself overseeing students preparing tendons for research.
"One has to reinvent oneself constantly," he said. "I think companies reinvent themselves and I think people have to reinvent themselves, particularly productive people. I've tried to do that. I try to reinvent myself every five years or so into something else. It keeps me young!"