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Charlie Liotta: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 2:22pm
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On February 26th people from across the country gathered at Georgia Tech to honor Charlie Liotta, Regents Professor Emeritus in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and his 50 years of teaching and research. Stories abound about people like Liotta, people who are amazingly intelligent and funny, show great leadership abilities, are incredibly kind and are a vision to behold on the dance floor. Trouble is it’s rare to find these attributes in one person, at least one who’s not fictional anyway. “If we had more people like Charlie Liotta the world would be a better place,” explained John Gupton, chemistry professor at the University of Richmond. “Charlie was the finest teacher I ever had. He’s extremely knowledgeable, has an ability to make complicated things understandable and is a lot of fun.” Liotta started at Tech as a post-doc in 1964, immediately after achieving his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. A year later he became an assistant professor. He hasn’t looked back since. An expert in the field of green chemistry, he strongly believes in developing chemical processes that industry can use, yet are environmentally benign. He was a co-recipient of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from President Bush in 2004. Through the years he’s accomplished much, but the one scientific piece that excites him most is his pioneering work in phase transfer catalysis. “Many times when you try to do a reaction, the two reactants will not come together because they are in separate phases, like oil and water. Phase transfer catalysis is a simple way of bringing these together,” said Liotta. Eminently curious, he became interested in his latest work, investigating how the first biological chemicals arose, when professor Nick Hud at Tech submitted a proposal to start a new National Science Foundation Center, the Center for Chemical Evolution, with the aim to find the origins of life.

“I gave it to him on a Friday and he had gone to the coast for the weekend,” said Hud. “I got a call from him on Saturday morning and he was very excited about the research and started to ask questions about our theories. Being a pure scientist his mind starts going, ‘why this’ and ‘what about this.’” “I said to him I think you should be part of this, and since then he has been a model member of the center,” said Hud. Perhaps even more memorable to his colleagues and students than his scientific prowess is his force of personality and his way with people. “There is always this wonder. He has this uncanny ability of making everybody feel very special in a way that only Charlie can,” said Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute. Angus Wilkinson, professor and associate chair of chemistry at Tech, has served with Liotta for many years, including when Liotta served as chair of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry from 2008-2013. He said that it’s Liotta’s willingness to allow people to explore and develop that make him such a treasure. “The thing that strikes me most about him is his humanity. He just cares intensely about the people he interacts with and how they are going to feel,” said Wilkinson. “That extends from the undergraduate classroom where he wants his students to have a good experience through every decision he’s made as chair. It’s not an impersonal thing for him,” he added. And humor is his favorite tool, which he uses both to win friends and make everyone feel at ease. “When I was first starting my career,” said Gupton, “he invited me to an energy conference where he brought in a high-powered physical organic chemist. Charlie and Ed Burgess, a colleague, had proposed a theory explaining a series of reactions. The chemist raised his hand, he wanted them to predict the amount of the correct products.” “Charlie replied, ‘Don’t you think this is pretty important? And by the way, if you don’t agree with me by 4 p.m. I’m not picking you up so you can catch your plane.’ Everyone laughed.” Ask many researchers what they think their most important contribution is and most of them will tell you about some discovery they’ve made, not Liotta. “It’s working with students in the classroom and in research, because we’re training the leaders of the future,” he said. “Every generation that I work with teaches me a lot of new things, they look at life differently with every generation.” “I’ve known Charlie for 50 years,” said patent attorney Bill Needle. “I was in Charlie’s first class that he taught at Georgia Tech in the winter quarter of 1964. I can honestly say that he is the same person he was 50 years ago, just full of energy, very concerned about his students, a very open, very warm person and a mentor to hundreds, if not thousands of students.” No matter how scientifically important his work is to the field of chemistry, industry, or mankind’s knowledge of the origins of life, Liotta always tries to find a way to use his work to educate students. “In making these discoveries,” he said about his work in the origins of life, “we’re making all kinds of new innovations that can help mankind. It’s also a wonderful vehicle for training students.” “A rough calculation would indicate that he has taught and impacted somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 students during his amazing career. The entire time, he has maintained his enthusiasm for students, teaching, and research,” said Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson. Of course no discussion of Liotta would be complete without mention of his true loves, his wife Maryann and their favorite pastime of the past 25 years, competitive ballroom dancing. Witnesses attest to their supremacy on the dance floor as do a number of awards. “It’s great exercise that you can do with your spouse. I’m the frame and Maryann is the picture,” said Liotta. “She is an integral part of any success that I’ve had because she supports everything I do.” An excellent teacher, a supreme scientist, a great boss and a capital comedian, Liotta is almost mythical. It seems the only thing that hasn’t been substantiated is proof that he can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But then again, have you seen him dance?

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