In Honor of Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Bob Pasternack
President Valerie Smith shared the following message with the campus community on June 17, 2021:
With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Robert Francis Pasternack, the Edmund Allen Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Biochemistry, died at Cape Canaveral Hospital in Florida on June 5. He was 84.
Bob, who served on the faculty for 28 years, is remembered as the consummate teacher-scholar who brought the same excellence to his long and productive research career as he did to his efforts to effectively deliver complex concepts in the classroom. This is perhaps best embodied by the scores of peer-reviewed articles he published with his students over the years.
Bob is survived by Sydney, his wife of almost 25 years and a former longtime staff member in the College’s Financial Aid Office; his children Jennifer and Jeffrey; and 3 grandchildren. At his request, there will be no memorial service. In lieu of flowers, please direct any gifts to the Chester Children’s Chorus.
I invite you to read more below about Bob and his many contributions to our community.
In Honor of Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Bob Pasternack
Robert F. Pasternack, the Edmund Allen Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Biochemistry, died Saturday, June 5, at age 84. With his passing, Swarthmore has lost one of its most respected and influential scholars, who inspired students and colleagues alike.
“Bob excelled in every aspect of being a researcher: His knowledge of chemistry was both deep and broad, his ability to plan and carry out experiments was first-rate, and his knack for understanding where new and significant discoveries are lurking was uncanny,” says Peter Collings, the Morris L. Clothier Professor Emeritus of Physics. “He was an equally accomplished teacher, and his lectures, whether to introductory chemistry students or to specialists at a conference, were spectacularly crafted and delivered.”
“He was instrumental in establishing a culture of doing publishable research with undergraduate students in the department, a culture that is still thriving today,” says Professor of Organic Chemistry Paul Rablen, adding that Pasternack’s teaching “enthralled generations of students.”
“Bob was a monumental inspiration to me from my first day on the faculty,” says Tom Stephenson, the James H. Hammons Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Hired to invigorate the research program of the department, Bob did just that. For many years, he ran the most active research group in the department, and in that sense was the model teacher-scholar.”
Pasternack, who grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in chemistry from Cornell University in 1957. At Cornell, he was a member of several honor societies and distinguished himself as an outstanding student in the sciences. The following year, he earned an M.A. in physics from Harvard University, then returned to Cornell with a grant from the Institute of Cancer Research of the National Institutes of Health, completing his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1962. Pasternack conducted postgraduate work at the University of Illinois and served as a consultant with the National Bureau of Standards before joining the chemistry faculty at Ithaca College in 1963.
By the time he was recruited to Swarthmore almost 20 years later, Pasternack had well established himself at Ithaca as a talented scholar and highly sought-after collaborator; he had chaired his department and held an endowed chair, served on Ithaca’s presidential search committee and Board of Trustees, and established and directed an influential lecture series. He had also begun publishing scholarly articles with undergraduate co-authors, a practice he once described as “students in teacherland” in a piece he wrote for science educators.
But as Pasternack told The Phoenix, which singled out his arrival from among a group of more than 30 new faculty members in 1982 as literal front-page news, he had been persuaded to come to Swarthmore for the “collegiate enthusiasm of its faculty, the continuing tradition of excellence as a liberal arts school, and the high quality of the student body.” He also stressed the importance of student involvement in his research, believing it to be an “integral part” of education. Indeed, over the course of his academic career, he would share authorship with his students on roughly 40% of his nearly 120 published articles.
Pasternack first came to Swarthmore in a snowstorm. With planes in Ithaca grounded due to weather, Pasternack traveled to Philadelphia by Greyhound bus. Peter Thompson, a fellow member of the Chemistry Department, and his wife, Peggy, met him there and took him to dinner. The meal was memorable for both professors as the beginning of a long-lasting friendship that endured until Thompson’s death in January.
At the time, Pasternack’s research focused on the examination of rapid organic chemical reactions, and he brought his own equipment to analyze reactions that occur within the span of a millionth of a second. Known as one of the world’s leading bioinorganic chemists, he was named to an endowed chair at the College two years later.
Pasternack combined his skill and zeal for his work with a keen wit and generous spirit that he often shared with his colleagues. Though it has been more than 30 years, chemistry professor Robert Paley still remembers how flattering and kind Pasternack was over the phone when he offered Paley a visiting professor position at the College. He came to view Pasternack as a role model.
“I so admired his dedication and success in carrying out high-level scientific research with undergraduate co-workers, as well as his crystal-clear and enthusiastic classroom lecturing,” says Paley, the Edmund Allen Professor of Chemistry. “His insight and creativity also made a lasting mark on our department's curriculum.”
Indeed, Pasternack’s presence in the classroom, especially when he taught large introductory classes, was legendary.
“For years, Bob was the mainstay of teaching general chemistry,” Stephenson says. “He was a remarkable lecturer — organized, clear, and dynamic.”
“In his study of the cooperative behavior of clusters of porphyrin molecules, he used to love to use the line, ‘If you tickle one of them, they all laugh!’ to describe the surprising, delocalized behavior of assemblies of these molecules,” Rablen says.
“Bob was an integral part of our department,” says Professor and Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry Liliya Yatsunyk. “He really knew how to keep students engaged and interested, and they loved Bob and his courses.”
Pasternack also knew an opportunity when he saw one. In 1992, he approached Collings because he thought there might be some overlap between their research efforts. That conversation ultimately led to the now widely used technique of resonance light scattering, and it changed the trajectory of their work for years to come.
Pasternack had found that water-soluble porphyrins could form what appeared to be a microarray on DNA, and he wanted to examine that more closely. So he turned to Collings, who had experience with light scattering.
“That was the beginning of over a decade of close collaboration and a huge amount of professional growth for me,” Collings says.
Their early experiments, with fixed wavelength lasers in Collings’s research lab, yielded some conclusions, but they did not see dramatic results until Pasternack had the idea to reconfigure a fluorometer, a common laboratory device that is used to measure fluorescence, or light, emitted by different objects.
Collings says that he would have been content to apply for joint research grants but that Pasternack had grander plans, recruiting colleagues from two other schools to apply for a multi-institutional, multidisciplinary grant.
“The National Science Foundation did not know what to do with our proposal, except they knew they had to find a way to fund it, not once but twice,” Collings says. “It was an inspirational ride and lots of fun, on top of the serious and painstaking laboratory work. Everyone involved learned so much and was never quite the same, which is the way Bob wanted it.”
After publishing their findings, Pasternack and Collings incorporated resonance light scattering into their general research efforts at Swarthmore. Dozens of students used the technique and co-authored papers with the professors over the following decade.
Pasternack and Collings also traveled the world to showcase their discovery. One of the reasons it became so popular among scientists was because it used equipment that was already sitting in their labs. Even the most cash-strapped researcher could explore the world of supramolecular chemistry.
“I’d go right into their labs to demonstrate it,” Pasternack said. “The response was just remarkable, and there have now been more than 1,000 papers published using these methods.”
In 2015, the Chemical Heritage Foundation came to Swarthmore to commemorate Pasternack’s and Collings’s discovery and claim for its collection the SPEX Fluorolog Spectrometer that the duo used to make the fortuitous discovery.
Throughout his tenure, Pasternack served the College — as department and division chair, among other roles — and his field more broadly. He also held several visiting professorships at universities around the world, including in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Kyoto, Japan, and Tianjin, China. His many awards included two from the American Chemical Society, both of which he received in 2005: for excellence in undergraduate teaching in chemical science, and for conspicuous scientific achievement through research.
After his retirement in 2010, Pasternack remained active, still running a research group and carrying out experiments in whatever space the department could spare, while also spending the winter months in Florida.
“He used to joke that he and Sydney came north with the Phillies,” Stephenson says. “We have greatly missed his presence the past two years, once his health required that he remain in Florida full time. His legacy in the chemistry world is measured in the hundreds of students that he inspired and mentored.”
Pasternack’s passion for his work was evident to anyone who knew him. Ginger Heck, a retired longtime senior lecturer in the Chemistry Department, recalls seeing him “one beautiful, sunny Saturday” in his research lab. “When I suggested that he should not be working but out doing something fun, he turned to me with a big grin on his face and said, ‘This is what I do for fun.’”
“Bob loved the life of the teacher-scholar, and saw no separation between the two,” Collings says. “In the research laboratory, he mentored and instructed students to accomplishments they never envisioned for themselves. In the classroom, he utilized examples from research to illustrate and explore course content. Bob was both proper and kind, serious and friendly — a wonderful class act.”