Adjunct Professor Portrait: Dr. Allen Siedle

For the last 7 years the Chemistry Department has had the distinct pleasure of being the scientific home of Adjunct Professor Dr. Allen Siedle.  Allen brings a unique blend of scientific wonder, decades of practical experience from industry, a generalist’s eye to problem-solving, and an infectious excitement for learning to the faculty, staff, and students he works with.  We feature Dr. Siedle in this issue as the department searches for its first Veronica Siedle Professor of Chemistry.

Dr. Siedle published his first scientific paper on the preparation of the B12H122- anion 19641 in work  completed in his garage lab in collaboration with Professor Roy Adams at nearby Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA.  They also wrote a book chapter together in 1964.  Studies of boron chemistry conducted while serving in the Navy as a hospital corpsman in collaboration with Norfolk State College and the U.S. Naval Ordnance Research Labs led to interactions with Professor Riley Schaeffer at IU in the late 1960’s.  These led Allen to come to IU to work with Professor Lee Todd studying boron chemistry and 11B NMR spectroscopy after completing his service in 1970.  He received his Ph.D. in 1973 and went to the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) Inorganic Chemistry section in Gaithersburg, MD as a post-doctoral fellow and staff scientist before joining 3M Corporate Research Laboratories in 1977.  While at 3M, he co-authored 65 papers, 6 review articles, and 33 patents.  These publications cover such topics as Pd coordination chemistry, organometallic chemistry of fluorocarbon acids, olefin polymerization catalysis, and solid-state organometallic chemistry.  He made an elastomeric polypropylene that intrigued him so much that he became a self-taught polymer chemist, which greatly expanded his network of contacts.  Later Allen was fascinated by the way in which a polymer film would snap if bent quickly but could be deformed beyond 90 degrees if moved slowly.  This and a Physics Today article, “How Things Break”2 led him to devour books on mechanical and structural properties of solids.  This broadening of his knowledge base greatly expanded his professional impact because the mechanical properties of polymers are critical to 3M (which has thousands of polymer-based products).  He also worked on making novel filtration media for both gas purification (e.g. breathing masks) and water purification (e.g. removing chloramine from drinking water).  3M strongly supported innovation and was (and still is, he believes) an outstanding venue for a research career. The picture below shows Allen in his 3M laboratory.

“Learn how to solve every problem that has been solved”

Dr. Siedle collaborated with IU faculty while at 3M, co-authoring papers with Distinguished Scientist John C. Huffman, Professor Lee Todd, and Professor Jeff Zaleski.  Allen had been in frequent communication with Professor Liang Shi Li as he approached retirement and further communications with Professor Ken Caulton led to Allen’s coming back to Bloomington to mentor Chemistry and Materials students as well as continue his own research in space on the 3rd floor.  Allen came to IU in 2012 with equipment donated by 3M and began collaborating with Inorganic Chemistry and Materials Science faculty.  To date, he has co-authored 4 publications taking advantage of his knowledge of x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, surface science, and his interest in graphite fluoride chemistry.  He has also applied for a U.S. patent based on his work here.

All who have had the privilege of working with Allen are moved by his enthusiasm and love of “doing science”.  Recent graduate Alicia Friedman (Ph.D. 2018, Baker group) recalls how working with Allen was a breath of fresh air near the end of her thesis research.  His love of chemistry was an excellent reminder of why many go into the field, to satisfy an unquenchable curiosity.  She also recounted how seriously he took his mentoring duties as an adjunct professor.  He was very supportive during her job search and always asked insightful questions at student seminars.  Current graduate student Brett Williams (C. Jarrold group) has had two different projects that started out with Allen bringing in the products of one his reactions and wondering “what will you see if you ablate this?”.  Brett told me that Allen was always excited to see data whether it agreed with expectations or disproved and initial hypotheses.  The latter are often much more interesting, in Allen’s opinion.

“Innovate, Don’t Compete”

When asked about what advice he would give to current students, he strongly advocates keeping one’s intellectual bandwidth as wide as possible.  He described chemistry as “any chemistry that is fun.”  He also quoted Richard Feynman’s final blackboard entry, “learn how to solve every problem that has been solved”.3  He described how in his career, he classified research problems by type (acid-base issue, radical chemistry problem, etc.) and then used to provide clues about which literature to consult when developing a strategy. He also maintains an insatiable curiosity about chemistry.  Allen always reads papers about the physics and chemistry of water as it is such a ubiquitous chemical.  He recently has taken up structural and systems biology as scientific interests.  His advice to faculty and alumni sound many of the same themes.  He reminded me that the various “disciplines” or “divisions” of chemistry are merely administrative conveniences.  They should not constrain a scientist’s thinking.  “Innovate, Don’t Compete” is one piece of advice he thinks everyone should adopt.  He would like to see IU Chemistry develop closer ties to industry starting with inviting more industrial chemists as speakers and working towards more active collaborations.  Allen would also like to see polymer chemistry become a larger field of study here as those materials offer such a wide range of practical applications to the community outside of the Academy.  Allen reminds older alumni to always be open to new learning opportunities.  His own career path has shown the value of picking up entirely new seemingly unrelated skill sets to tackle new problems.  Our conversation ended with discussions of a few recent papers and symposia he had digested on topics such as the concave/convex 14-mer structure of walnut shells, the pressure inside viruses (30 atm in some cases), graphite fluoride’s band gap, and how he loves meeting students with wide scientific interests.  The Chemistry Department is very fortunate to have Allen in our midst on a daily basis, and we look forward to finding an excellent scientist to be the first Veronica Siedle Professor of Chemistry.

(1)         Barnes, J. T.; Griffith, K. J.; Beeler, J. A.; Gerroll, B. H. R.; Couto Petro, A. G.; Williams, C. G.; Siedle, A. R.; Tait, S. L.; Peters, D. G. Alkyl-Group Grafting onto Glassy Carbon Cathodes by Reduction of Primary Monohaloalkanes: Electrochemistry and X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy Studies. J. Electroanal. Chem. 2019, 3 (3), 113531.

(2)         Marder, M.; Fineberg, J. How Things Break. Phys. Today 1996, 49 (9), 24–29.

(3)         Richard Feynman Advice to Koichi Manom (accessed Dec 2, 2019).