Several individuals were instrumental in shaping my chemistry career. I feel that the least I can do to thank them is to pay homage to them here.
My high school chemistry teacher ignited my interest in chemistry. I. I. Umanskaya (unfortunately, I do not have her picture) was a devoted and gifted teacher. She knew how to draw her students to chemistry and how to sustain their interest. Starting from her first lessons the subject really caught me. In addition to clear explanations and fasciinating demonstrations in class, I. I. organized after-class meetings and had a large and well-equipped lab. For 3 years until my high school graduation, I was spending a lot of time in that lab, running my first experiments and preparing for chemistry Olympiads, together with a group of like-minded students as interested in chemistry. After graduation there was little doubt in my mind which road to choose.
I decided to stay in my hometown, where Chelyabinsk State University offered a program in chemistry. This rather new University attracted many young energetic scientists, one of whom was A. I. Filippov. A. I. came from Voronezh State University, home of a strong physical organic chemistry school of Professor L. P. Zalukaev. While doing research in physical organic chemistry, A. I. was teaching general and inorganic chemistry, the first chemistry class for us to take. I was so impressed with his style and personality that after a couple of months I approached him and asked if I could do my Ph.D. with him. I suspect that this question coming from a first-year undergrad surprised him quite a bit, but he offered me to come to his lab and start working. Which I did, and spent the next 5 years working with A. I. both as a research assistant, and as a lab technician helping him run general/inorganic labs. That was a great time. A. I. was an excellent supervisor, with broad interests in science, excellent synthetic techniques, providing a combination of hands-on training and freedom to explore chemistry, and creating a very friendly environment in the group. A. I. became more than a supervisor for me, numerous times giving advice on things other than chemistry. I am greatly indebted to him for too many things to list here. Sadly, A. I. passed away in 2009.
After completing my studies I was offered a position at CSU Chemistry Department but it was clear that doing experimental science in Russia will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Thus, immigration of all my family to Israel was a blessing (of course, not only from the professional point of view). After a couple of months in Israel, I mastered enough Hebrew to take a trip to the Technion and to walk around its Chemistry Department wondering is somebody would be interested in a graduate student. Luckily, Professor Yitzhak Apeloig was in his office. In his usual friendly manner, he listened to my mixture of Hebrew and English and offered a tour of his lab, where his new (at that time) senior research associate Dr. Dmitry Bravo-Zhivotovskii was working. I talked to both men some more and was very happy to later find myself accepted to the group. Yitzhak was a great supervisor. He was very supportive, something badly needed especially during the first semesters filled with starting a new project, learning new instrumentation and computers, taking numerous classes and teaching, all in a new language. During my 3.5 years in the group, Yitzhak taught me a great deal about chemistry and about science in general. He has a remarkable ability to analyze every problem in very basic terms and apply his vast knowledge of mechanistic and theoretical chemistry to the most practical aspects of chemistry. In addition, he created a wonderful spirit of camaraderie in his group.
Yitzhak’s senior research associate Dr. Dmitry Bravo-Zhivotovskii was working right in the lab. This way, in addition to the guidance and frequent discussion with Yitzhak, I was getting hands-on training from one of the best organometallic chemists there is. There is probably nothing he cannot do in the lab, be it synthesis, manipulations with air-sensitive compounds, growing crystals or glass blowing. His knowledge of chemical literature is remarkable, and his approach to research is deep and logical. He is very focused on science and his morning announcements of “an idea he got at night when he could not sleep” always amazed me. Dmitry is more than a mentor, he is a friend who taught me a lot.
According to the Technion rules I had to obtain my M.Sc. first. The next step was getting a Ph.D., and one could hardly wish for a better research group than Yitzhak’s. Before I could proceed I had to take a yearlong break from school to serve in Israeli Defense Forces. There the voice of my adventure spirit became quite audible and an idea to do my Ph.D. in the USA started shaping in my head. I wrote several letters to the US silicon chemists whose names I knew from the literature, and later accepted an offer from Professor Josef Michl.
This turned out to be an extremely lucky decision. My 5.5 years at CU Boulder are hard to describe other than fantastic. It was the time of unbelievable growth for me. Anything I say would probably not be enough to characterize Josef, his work, and him as a supervisor. Josef takes his students to the highest levels of maturity and provides an enormous reference point. He attracts many wonderful students, postdocs and visiting scientists to his group. It was a privilege to work side by side with those people, some of whom became close friends. In addition to working with Josef on diverse problems, I lived in Colorado, where I fell in love with the Western US. During all those years Josef was very supportive not only of my work by also of my family. Leaving Boulder was very hard for us…
For three years after completing my Ph.D. I worked as a postdoc with Professor Steven C. Zimmerman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I enjoyed our interaction very much both scientifically and on a personal level. There was a lot of interesting chemistry of a different kind compared to what I was used to. Steve’s knowledge of synthetic, physical, bioorganic, and organic chemistry is very impressive indeed. In addition to that Steve taught me a lot about life and success in academia, and gave me lots of freedom to explore my own ideas, which is ideal for a postdoc thinking of an academic career. We share a common passion for good scientific illustrations, and he has a mean serve in tennis that I could not handle most of the time. Working with Steve contributed enormously to my readiness to start an independent career.