Most people who founded a world-class polymer science and engineering department and were heralded as a pioneer in their profession would be content after 35 years to sit back and bask in the limelight.
Not Eric Baer.
Every five years or so, Baer, the Herbert Henry Dow Professor of Science and Engineering at CWRU, reinvents himself. He literally takes stock of what he has accomplished in the past half decade and maps out what his next challenge will be.
Baer was honored with the 1998 Frank and Dorothy Humel Hovorka Prize. It is awarded annually to a faculty member whose exceptional achievements in teaching, research, and scholarly service have benefitted the community, the nation, and the world.
When Baer joined the CWRU faculty in 1962 as a chemical engineer, the Department of Macromolecular Science was nothing but a vision. He spent the next 15 years turning that vision into reality. He hired a cadre of excellent faculty who would work with him to create a critical mass of important research and teaching. Baer and the other professors would nurture promising students and engage them in research until the students could go out and make their own mark in the burgeoning field of polymer science.
His efforts culminated in establishing CWRU's Department of Macromolecular Science in 1967. It was to become the first comprehensive polymer science and engineering department at a major U.S. university. Today, the department is one of the premier international centers for advanced research and education in polymers.
"In 1963 I was certain that this field would flourish and contribute enormously to science and technology," Baer said. "As we approach the 21st century, the prediction for the future is even brighter."
Baer continued to build on the department's strengths until 1978, when he became dean of Case Institute of Technology (now the Case School of Engineering). He served as dean until 1983, then he decided to resume teaching and research. Since his return to the department, Baer has channeled his energies into the Center for Applied Polymer Research.
The center, directed by Anne Hiltner, CWRU professor of macromolecular science, was founded in 1981. It carries out interdisciplinary applied and basic research on structure-property-processing relationships in polymeric materials of interest to industry. Current annual research funding is $1.5 million.
"This has been a very productive part of my career," said Baer, who has written five books and 350 journal articles. He has been editor of The Journal of Applied Polymer Science since 1988.
His body of work has won him numerous awards, including an honorary doctor of science degree from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
To say Baer has an avid interest in the materials science of polymers and their composites would be an understatement.
In earlier times, the researcher noted, scientists worked on splitting the atom and understanding the genesis of the universe.
"Today we are in an era of very complicated materials systems," Baer said. "My contribution is discovering how to handle these materials systems using a very systematic approach."
He studies very complex arrangements of molecules that exist in hierarchical structures in polymers and biological systems. These structures form a kind of architecture with many levels that make it possible to design synthetic polymers with properties that are on the cutting edge of materials science. The polymers have superior mechanical strength, rigidity, toughness, electrical conductivity, and the capacity to work under extreme environmental conditions.
Baer also is a founder of the field of biomimetics, which borrows lessons from nature in developing improved synthetic materials.
He now finds himself at a serendipitous place in his life.
"I love teaching undergraduate and graduate students, doing research that is relevant to meeting society's needs in a reasonable period, and I enjoy editing."
He plans to continue as an innovative leader in all three.