The Invention Adventure-1 Ken Rubenstein
It’s 1970 as this New Jersey-born lad basks in Palo Alto’s fine rendition of early-autumn weather. How did I get here? Let’s say it resembles Jerry Garcia’s long strange trip.
Starting with a relatively uneventful four year stint at Passaic High School, I sailed into Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus as a chemistry major, and skidded right back out 18 months later to avoid the embarrassment of inevitable dismissal. I next took a modest step down in prestige, rejoined my parents, and enrolled in nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University’s commuter college. Bearing down hard, I managed by 1962 to graduate in with honors in chemistry. Fortune reigned then as the feds struggled to gain ground against Soviets in the post-Sputnik era and set aside ample funds to encourage graduate training of scientists and engineers. Thus I landed a fully paid slot in the University of Wisconsin’s organic chemistry doctoral program with enough income to cover living expenses.
On graduation four years later I found myself a recipient of more job offers than I’d ever dreamed possible. I’d married an aspiring librarian, Joyce, at whose urging I took on the role of research chemist at suburban Philadelphia’s Rohm and Haas Company. After eighteen months I realized that working on better permanent press fabrics and faster sticking paints lacked sufficient pizzazz to keep me awake and switched on.
I explored possible next steps and decided on approaching a noted biochemistry professor across town at the University of Pennsylvania. He proved willing to fund me for two years of post-doctoral life sciences learning while doing research in his lab. In return I’d use my chemical skills to cook him up a few compounds he couldn’t buy on the market.
By 1970 two hard, but productive, years later I was ready once more to leave the groves of academy for an actual job. Guess what? With all those PhDs the feds minted in the 1960, American companies found themselves over-full of bushy-tailed Ph.D.’s, and not a single interview came my way. In need, I tapped my network of Wisconsin alumni and came up with a single promising offer as a post-doc at small start-up venture in Palo Alto. They planned that year to hire four such, only one of which would earn a coveted permanent post there—Syva Company, a joint venture of Syntex Pharmaceuticals, originator of the birth control pill, and cutting-edge instrument manufacturer, Varian Instruments. Syva was tiny, my badge bore number 13.
My bride and I journeyed west, and took up residence in a Mountain View apartment with a splendid view of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. I rode my motor scooter daily five miles up El Camino Real to the Stanford Industrial Park and Syva’s small lab building. There I faced some disappointment. Rather than putting my hard-won biology knowledge to work, they had me synthesizing organic chemicals to support a program aimed at super-fast testing abused drugs in urine with exotic instruments, electron spin resonance spectrometers. I was not happy, but, hey, you never know when things might take a turn for the better.