November 6 , 2006
BY Benjamin van der horst
Fredric Menger likes to joke that “fire had yet to be domesticated” when he first came to Emory. He arrived in 1965 as an assistant professor of chemistry.
Emory was still a regional college and the chemistry department was “just a tiny little developing department,” he recalled. In fact, he spent the first eight years at Emory in the Psychology Building because there wasn’t room in the Chemistry Building.
Forty-one years later, Menger is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Organic Chemistry and oversees the Menger lab group. “We have really developed chemistry in a big way,” Menger said. “We’ve become an important department on the national scene.”
Menger teaches graduate classes almost exclusively, and some of his favorite classes include those on “special topics.” In preparation for teaching these classes, he researches an aspect of chemistry extensively — a task he said he greatly enjoys — and develops the class around his research. Currently, he is researching polymers for an upcoming class.
Although he regularly teaches graduate students, a number of years ago Menger decided that he wanted to interact more with undergraduates. So he began teaching a course called “How Things Work.”
The course blends chemistry, biology and physics to explain how everyday things work, such as compact discs and door locks. The class was extremely popular and was picked by The Emory Wheel as the one of the best science classes that fall.
“I wanted to attract non-science clientele to this building,” Menger said. He calls the class a challenge because he needs to learn about the various topics well enough to teach them to a broad range of students.
“I have learned a lot from this course myself,” he said. Constantly learning and teaching new topics seems to be a theme for Menger. He enjoys it, he said, because of the challenge it provides.
In his lab, Menger and his lab group focus on bioorganic chemistry. The three main areas of his research are enzymes — proteins that speed up reactions and how exactly they make reactions faster; biological membranes — how they behave, divide and undergo fission and fusion; and organic synthesis — making new compounds.
“We make a lot of new compounds with interesting properties,” he said. “We spend 80 percent of our time synthesizing new compounds and 20 percent of our time studying their properties.”
Menger has been called an unconventional organic chemist because he focuses on chemical systems.
“Most organic chemists do ‘a plus b equals c,’” he said. “We’re interested more in collections of molecules, in assemblies. And that’s really important for biology because biology is not individual reactions,” he said.
One of his group’s great successes in chemical systems is creating a system with eight different components, each with a specific function to destroy chemical warfare agents. Menger is often asked if he plans to commercialize his work, but explains that he has no interest in doing so because his work is supported by the public through grants from various organizations.
“We publish our stuff and the public can do with it what they want. I’m not anxious to take out patents or start companies … it’s just not one of my interests. I just like the science and the publication of the science. And if it turns out that some of these materials are useful for others, I’m happy for that,” he said.
Menger has been recognized by many in his field as a leading organic chemist. He won the Herty Medal, an award given annually by the Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society, in 1997.
In a nominating letter, Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann wrote about Menger: “Fred Menger’s work is distinguished by three things: (1) its sheer originality, (2) its fearlessness in tackling inherently complex problems and/or questioning pre-conceived notions, and (3) an attention to language, style and pedagogy in the presentation of the work.”
Hoffman’s final point speaks to one of Menger’s priorities. He takes great pride in writing and presenting his work in a lucid, well-written manner. “I consider writing essential,” he said. “Whether a paper is accepted or rejected in a good journal can depend as much on the writing as on the science.”
Discussing his lab group, Menger said, “We take great care in how we write these papers. I figure if a student spends two, three, four years doing research, the least we can do is get it as well presented as possible.”
Emphasizing this point, he teaches good writing techniques in all of his science classes, both on the graduate and undergraduate level.
Outside the classroom and lab, Menger spends a great deal of time in nature. “I really love the outdoors a lot,” he said.
For many years he was an avid mountain climber, scaling such peaks as Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere at nearly 23,000 feet, and Mount Klyuchevskaya, the highest mountain in Russia. He was the first American to climb Klyuchevskaya after access was allowed at the end of the Cold War.
His last major adventure was two summers ago with a group from Outward Bound. He participated in a 23-day white-water canoe trip on the Bloodvein River in Manitoba, Canada. It was two weeks of rain and “hoards” of mosquitoes, he said. Menger is now planning a trip to the Arctic.
Menger plays the blues harmonica and has written two books that are awaiting a publisher. One is a collection of 25 short stories that he has written while waiting in airports and other places. The other book presents a revised view of evolution that takes into account the creation of human intelligence and how it relates to Darwin.
Clearly, Menger is a man of many interests, who views teaching — and life — as an adventure.