Prof. Michael Hartshorn RIP

I recently learned that my mentor through postgraduate study has passed away. Here is the text of a speech I recently gave telling how important he was to me.

In February 1985 I flew from Hamilton where I worked as a soil technician to Christchurch to meet with Professor Michael Hartshorn. He was a fortyish year old tall proper English man dressed a dark suit with a white shirt and conservative tie. I was there to discuss a Masters program. At the end of my meeting with him. I asked if I could talk to a current student. “Of course”. He took me into the lab and introduced me to soon to be Dr Jenny Redman.

I asked her, “What’s he like?”. She replied, “He’s a bastard?”, “Uh? What do you mean?” “Well, he expects you in the lab between 9 and 4.30. And if you aren’t, you’re in trouble; he’s a bastard. Funny thing is, his students finish on time…”
That is how I met Professor Micheal Hartshorn.

I always dreamed of being a scientist but my honours degree was not good enough. I remember the day I received my results. I opened the letter in my tiny grey lab in the tower block Rurakura Research Centre Hamilton. Third class honours; four C grades. I was devastated. My dreams of a PhD and working as a scientist gone.

I kept working as a technician for five years. In the end, I was so frustrated and unhappy that every morning I wanting to smash windows and scream. Prof. gave me a path out. Following my interview, I returned to Hamilton, left my job, packed my little yellow Mitsubishi mirage hatchback and moved to Christchurch. One year, work like hell and put my Honours Degree behind me.

My project was treating the tri-alkyl substituted phenols with chlorine gas and analysing the resultant mixture. That meant running the reaction, separating the products and characterizing them. That characterization included x-ray crystallography of the products.
I found the work incredibly rewarding. I still miss the pleasure of handling the fragile glassware.

Fragility was a thing. X-Ray crystallography means taking a tiny crystal and using Araldite to fix it to a tiny glass fibre. That fibre is then place in the centre of a delicate set of cooling grass-ware. Like a thermos, silvered, evacuated glassware used so the crystal was kept cool with a stream of cold nitrogen. That cooling setup was needed to stop the crystal melting when the x- rays were shining. The crystallography gear was run 24 hours a day, pretty much all of the time.

I remember one night when I went in at 9 PM to set up a crystal; at 3 AM I found the crystal – twined. That meant the tiny crystal had a tiny crack and was unusable. I had to start again. I tried, but at that hour I was too clumsy to handle delicate work. That’s when I learned sometimes it is best to put your hands in your pockets and walk away; rest.

The data processing for x-ray was computer controlled. Don’t ask me the maths, I just followed the protocol. But access to computers was the bottle neck.

This is about Prof. At one stage, the crystallography computer was broken. My friend, who looked after another instrument, set up the software so I could work with that. The problem was, I had to work a night. So for a week, I worked five to midnight.
But I had not been in the lab 8 to 5. I remember coming into work at 8.30 the next day to a blue fountain pen note on my desk. “See me when you get in!” I quietly laughed when I handed him my printouts; at that stage about a pound of paper.

At last I move onto writing my thesis. I was the last generation of students to write using pen and paper.
I wrote in blue brio onto lined paper and everything that went to Prof. had to be perfect. That meant, if I made a mistake I had to write the whole page again. I had three months, 24 hours a day and a deadline. I’d write, hand my work to Prof and pick up the last draft with comments. He would cover my perfect writing with red pen comments. That was awful. I still refuse to mark in red pen, I was that traumatized. I would trudge home, lie flat on my bed, and feel discouraged. After half an hour of this I’d think, “F… this. Let’s see what the bastard has done”. And get on with fixing my work. This went on for months.

It was during this time that Prof. approached me. His ex-students at the DSIR had organized a scholarship. “Would you like to continue onto a PhD. You will need a good grade.” Yes, I would like that.”

So I continued writing and submitted on time, then returned to my parents to rest and wait. Two weeks later Prof. called. With his guidance I’d earned Distinction and the opportunity to earn my PhD.

Professor Micheal Hartshorn changed my life.

Prof. Hartshorn (I don’t know who took the photograph)


About sustainabilityandbeauty

My passion is telling the stories of possibility, seeking a sustainable and beautiful future. My training is in science, chemistry, environmental science and teaching.
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