Professor Barry L. Karger: Scientist, Mentor, and Innovator

Oct 01, 2013
Volume 26, Issue 10

Professor Barry L. Karger, one of the earliest contributors of modern high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and bioanalytical separations and analysis, celebrates his 50th year as professor of chemistry at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, and his 40th year as Director of the Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis this year. His years as a teacher and mentor to scores of students, many of whom hold key positions in industry and academia, as well as his accomplishments in the scientific arena, are reviewed by Howard Barth, his former student.

Figure 1: Professor Barry Karger surrounded by high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) systems at the Barnett Institute.
This year celebrates Professor Barry L. Karger's 50th anniversary as professor of chemistry at Northeastern University (NU), and his 40th year as Director of the Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis (Figure 1). Barry has influenced the lives of hundreds of PhD graduate students, postdoctoral fellows at NU, and staff scientists at the Barnett Institute. He was responsible for developing two generations of analytical chemists, as well as training many students in cutting-edge separation science and bioanalytical chemistry. His research programmes have attracted many high-level and prominent scientists who have spent their sabbaticals in his laboratories, advancing analytical sciences. At 74 years of age, Barry is still actively writing, lecturing, and promoting the study of bioanalysis.

It was also 50 years ago when our paths first crossed. I was a high school senior in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, and Barry was a newly-appointed assistant professor at NU. I had just placed first in the regional and state high school science fairs for analysing trace metals in seawater (Boston Harbor), using a recently introduced chelating resin for removal and concentrating metal ions and a homemade polarograph for detection, which forever fuelled my interest in analytical chemistry. My enthusiasm knew no bounds, and after a few phone calls, I reached Barry at NU and asked if he would take me on as a summer student in his laboratory. Although he was just setting up his programmes, he invited me to visit when I enrolled at NU in 1964. That was when our first interaction began, which continued throughout most of my time as an undergraduate, and for many years after I earned my PhD from Barry. It was through him that I obtained my first job in industry as a chromatographer.

In recognition of Barry's scientific accomplishments, and the impact that he has had on the development of such a large number of analytical chemists, this biography is dedicated. (Because it is not practical to list all of Barry's patents and publications, only a select few are referenced to give the readers a flavour of his output.)

Early Years as a MIT Undergraduate

Barry's first exposure to separation science was during his undergraduate years as a chemistry major at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, USA. At the time, MIT had an active analytical chemistry department, headed by Professor L.B. "Buck" Rogers, one of the "fathers" of analytical chemistry. For his senior research project, Barry was introduced to foam fractionation by Buck. This method is an off-shoot of ore flotation, a mining operation, in which solutes of interest are selectively adsorbed onto surface-active bubbles forming solute-enriched foam that is continuously collected, and processed. Nowadays, bubble adsorptive methods have been replaced with modern separation techniques.

Barry published his first paper in 1961 on the foam fractionation studies he had performed for his senior research project with Buck at MIT (1). This initial exposure to separation science decided his fate. He was not only attracted to the experimental and theoretical aspects of the separation process, but also to physicochemical measurements that could be made with chromatographic techniques.

Graduate school was next. Most universities at the time had analytical programmes in electroanalytical chemistry, spectroscopy, or wet-chemical methods. Buck, however, strongly suggested that Barry focus on research in chromatography, particularly gas chromatography (GC), an emerging technology that offered many opportunities regarding theory and applications.

Gas Chromatography at Cornell University

There were only a few graduate programmes in the early 1960s that offered studies of separation science. One such programme was at Cornell University, headed by Professor Don Cooke, one of the more popular analytical chemists at the time. In 1960, Barry enrolled at Cornell, and within three years of dedicated research, he had produced a series of papers on the influence of GC column and operating parameters using time normalization. This method was a new approach for optimizing the separation process, and has since been adapted by many other investigators. Barry also designed and built a new version of a flame ionization detector (FID) for GC.

After receiving his PhD in 1963, he and his wife Trudy decided to move back to Boston to be closer to family. Because of the baby boom, universities were expanding their departments and teaching positions were plentiful. He accepted a faculty position at NU, noted for its co-operative work and study programme for undergraduates. It was an opportunity for Barry to establish a research programme dedicated to separation science, a growing discipline that was demanding more trained chemists.

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