An Interview with Brian Crawford ’76, President of Publications for American Chemical Society, 2015 Alumnus of the Year

BrianCrawfordandJayanthBanavarAlumniAwardPresentationDuring the Spring Semester, Brian Crawford was awarded Alumni of the Year for all of his many contributions to the University, and to the Chemistry and Biochemistry department. One of these contributions was realized this year with the first time awarding of the Brian Crawford ’76 Scholarship to Lok-Man Yeung (Biochemistry B. S. 2015).

After a very full day of meeting with students, mentoring, and sharing his experience, Brian Crawford shared his thoughts about his time at the University of Maryland and how the Chemistry department shaped his life and career.

How has your day been?
“I feel like I’m home again. The reception I have gotten from faculty and students have been marvelous.  It was quite an honor to be the luncheon today and to be recognized me as an alum.  It feels great.  Had to wander around the halls a little bit, the same halls I wandered years ago.”

How did you feel when you found out you were going to be named alumni of the year
I was thrilled.  It was something I never imagined. I really appreciate it because I am committed to the University, the Department.”

What brought you to Maryland, were you local?
“I was local; I grew up in Howard County. I moved on campus and become a resident assistant and I had the ability to steep myself in the culture.  I would say that, in the 1970, it was the bombing of Cambodia that caused student protest movements to take off across the country and the University of Maryland was no exception.  Campus life, then, was characterized by those on campus who were very active in student protest movement. I wanted to be an engaged student, but I also was interested in being involved with any activism that remained by the time I enrolled here.  The Vietnam War was winding down by the time I got here in 1972 but I was [still involved] on campus.”

What made you choose Chemistry?
“A high school teacher that was inspirational, Ivan Sutton. The students said chemistry was the toughest subject and a killer course and I thought was up to the challenge. The course was tough, but he really made chemistry come alive for me.

When I came to UMD, the first chemistry professor I had direct contact with was Al Boyd.  He was my advisor as an undergraduate.  I wanted to be a pre-med student, but Al Boyd was my general chemistry professor and he was also the person assigned to be my advisor for choice of courses for my major.  He was such a tough guy. He scared the living daylights out of me! Initially, I thought maybe I wasn’t up for chemistry at the University level, but he challenged me, and my way of thinking. He was the motivational force when I got here.  Also, I was fortunate enough to have a very vibrant organic chemistry teacher named Richard Goldsby.  He was here only briefly in the 70s.  He left for a research post in California shortly after I started doing undergraduate research with him.  What made me chose chemistry as a major was the challenge of it for a pre-med curriculum. What made me choose chemistry as a career was [my university experience orienting] me towards research.”

When you were in Chemistry in what did you want to specialize?
“Initially I was intrigued by organic chemistry, what grabbed me then, once I started working with Goldsby, was the idea of original research vs. a laboratory demonstration; to be a part of a real experiment.  In high school I was lucky enough to take part in some extracurricular activities for intriguing lab exercises.  What I learned here at the University was the lab exercises were well formulated, but going into an original research experience made me know how to frame a scientific problem, how to perform query when the answer wasn’t already known.  I was actually looking for answers.”

How did your undergraduate experience prepare you for professional life?
“It sounds cliché, but it taught me how to think, to be open to making choices in life, and to not necessarily be goal oriented.  A goal can be part of what motivates one in life, but the open choices based on circumstances [can lead to good things]. For example, I could have gone to medical school, but because of my experience here I was presented with a choice of going to graduate school and that career choice was made possible because of what alternatives I had been shown.”

I would say, as I grow older in my career as a publisher, I manage other people and I can observe how others need that flexibility in a supervisor and manager. They need options and alternatives. Dogma doesn’t advance science or business.  Flexibility is what is needed in order to adjust.

Would you say that is the most important thing you learned at UMD?
“[Earlier] I shared with the group [of students] about the importance of networking with people.  I don’t consider myself a master networker, but it’s the connections in life that have helped me, and I’ve been very grateful as I have advanced in my career.  Again that has been part of having those paths presented to me as the result of individuals who believed in me either recommending me or introducing me to others.

An example is that Richard Goldsby, when he left University of Maryland, introduced me to a lab at Hopkins for a summer internship. It ended up being the place where I was funded to do my graduate work.  When I finished there, I was in turn introduced to other investigators at Los Alamos National Lab, and later in my publishing career similar things have happened.  It all grew into a network of scientific contacts or professional contacts that led me to make my career choices.  So I would say it this way, to grown children when they go off to a new University, it so important to make friendships and network with people.  Not because you want to exploit the network but because that network will naturally coalesce around you.”

What is the best thing your education from the University has allowed you to accomplish?

“It has allowed me to provide for my family.  I married when I was an Undergraduate my senior year.  My wife was at Hopkins at the time, and we ended up having three children who are now young adults.  If I had not pursued an education and started with that here, I would not have been able to provide for my children, who are all educated and have pursued graduate educations themselves.

I was the first member of my immediate family to get a higher education. My sister also attended UMCP and then Princeton for masters work, but within my family, these were firsts.  It then set up a pattern for the next generation.  Thinking about it more broadly and philosophically, even though I was a chemistry major, I had the advantage of the work in the humanities here.  I took courses in English, Philosophy, made me a broader thinker, well rounded person and I think even though I was not a perfect parent it made me a better parent.”

How do you take what you learn into your current life as publisher?
“My appreciation for science and the scientific method, and an understanding of the pressures scientists are under; particularly in the academic environment, to write for research grants and to be able to publish that work from their research as a means of getting funded again.  I understand the commerce of science, and I bring that mind set to what I do in publishing. There is a practical aspect to that mentality that the very best published science is going to advance science. So I feel as though I’m serving the next generation of scientists by making sure they have high caliber publications as venues to publish in, and to have an opportunity to network. Scientific publishing is a type of networking.

So I would say what I brought from this experience onward was I learned about research journals as opposed to textbooks here at UMCP.  I didn’t even know research journals existed until I came here.”

What made you choose publications as a career?
“The irony is that it was Professor Rollinson, an inorganic chemist, who took me down the bowels of the chemistry library and said, “You need to understand what scientific journals are and he said look at these they are in German, you better learn how to read German if you want to be a chemist.”

I didn’t learn German but I did learn about scientific journals.  He told me the Goldsby lab was where I would learn to read scientific journals and for the content published in them. So that grounding in what a journal is, what peer review is, how to frame a response to a research report and how to have it reviewed by peer reviewers led me then to working with others when I was publishing myself when I was helping others to edit their manuscripts.  That led to the decision to pursue a science publishing career.  I knew what the scientific communications side was about.”

What would you want current or future students to know about the University of Maryland?
“The breadth of courses offered here is so tremendous and it’s a wonderful opportunity to get a graduate education.  Also even though it’s a large school, there is also the ability to identify a small group of faculty and to personalize that experience. I think some students, when they are touring schools, think about where they want to attend, they think of big school/small school.  When I was here [at UMD and in chemistry] it was that big school opportunity with a small school touch.”