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Research fellowship at Wisconsin University


Studying at graduate school at night
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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There were night places... there were two in New York where you could get... go to graduate school at night part-time. There was New York University and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, which is now called the Polytechnic University. That time it was called Brooklyn Poly. Now it’s just called Poly. And Brooklyn Poly incidentally became probably the... initially the most important centre in America for polymer research, again through refugees from Europe, particularly Marks... Mark... but also others who started this polymer centre at Brooklyn Poly.

I first started... so that meant working until five o’clock in the afternoon. Then taking the Lackawanna railroad for about an hour to Hoboken. Then taking the ferry to New York. Then catching the subway and ending up, while I’m doing all this eating some sandwiches on the train, and then going to night classes, and then making the return trip at whatever it is, nine or ten o’clock, to get back to Summit, New Jersey. I mean this was pretty brutal, but at that age you can still do that. Now, I was just taking classes, of course. I was not doing research there because I was doing research... Anyway, in many respects I had much more experience after this one year than any of the other graduate students who were doing other things. I was working in a very sophisticated lab, a very well-equipped lab, much better equipped than any of the university labs, at Ciba. But the graduate system in the States, you also have to take a fair number of advanced courses. So I started taking these and so for... during that year also went partly to graduate school but realised that this was the pits for someone who is as impatient as I am because I would probably have taken 10 years or something to get a PhD at that rate with part-time stuff.

And, so, at the end of that first year at... at Ciba... Now, Ciba had appreciated the work I did and treated me very well and I said, I want to go to graduate school full time, and I applied to various ones. I managed to get a rather attractive fellowship. Attractive at that time is to the amount of $65 a month but that was a reasonable amount, barely survival... in Madison, Wisconsin, which was a very good university... the University of Wisconsin. And I told the people at Ciba that I would leave to get a full-time PhD and they actually wanted me to come back. So they said, we’ll supplement that, and gave me something like maybe $1000 a year during my graduate career in the hope that I would then, when I get my PhD, come back to... to Ciba. So it was a very... not only a nice gesture, but it was, in fact, one that I appreciated and followed up on.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: New York University, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Ciba, University of Wisconsin, polymer, Lackawanna Railroad, Herman Francis Mark

Duration: 3 minutes

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008