M. Stanley Whittingham wasn’t totally surprised when he got the call from Stockholm. Two members of the Nobel Prize committee called him at a meeting in Germany and told him, “You’ve got it!” That’s how it happens.
“What surprised me though, and I grumbled to the chancellor of SUNY about it, was when I learned that SUNY has had 15 Nobel prizes,” he said. “They’ve had every single one of the prizes at some stage, and I don’t think anybody knew of that. They don’t market that.”
Since the distinguished professor of chemistry and materials science at Binghamton University and now Nobel laureate mentioned it, however, that tidbit has appeared on the SUNY website.
This honor is indicative of the kind of people we have in our public higher education system, he said, and “you have to wave the flag!”
A warm and witty Englishman, the longtime member of United University Professions and NYSUT heads to Stockholm Dec. 4 to accept his award and enjoy the pageantry and ceremonies during Nobel Week.
He and two others share the 2019 prize in chemistry for pioneering research leading to the development of the lithium-ion battery. His fellow laureates are John B. Goodenough of the University of Texas and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University in Japan.
His wife, Georgina, a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at SUNY Oswego will accompany Whittingham on the trip.
They have been union members since they came to SUNY, and in fact, have been members of the UUP executive committees at their respective chapters. The union represents academic and professional faculty and retirees at 29 state-operated campuses.
UUP President Fred Kowal described Whittingham as a “groundbreaking chemist and a strong unionist who understands and reflects the importance of being a union member in word and deed.”
Whittingham went to Oxford University for his undergraduate and graduate education, gaining invaluable research experience on the way to his Ph.D. He continued as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
The 1970s was an exciting time to do industrial research and he was hired at Exxon, where he spent 16 years and came up with the Nobel winning idea for lithium-ion batteries. Eventually appointed division director of chemical engineering, he found he didn’t like management as much as the work and decided to return to academia. “There were two reasons I moved back into academia — it was partly because you have more control over your life, but also because you get new blood in every year, a new group of students. It keeps you young.”
With his record and reputation, in 1988, he could have gone almost anywhere. “I chose Binghamton because I could interact across all of the departments, and that’s not the case at most universities,” he said.
Upon arrival, he immediately joined the union; he also learned he was the director of a new Institute for Materials Research. In 1993, he was named vice president for research, a management position.
“But after five years I came back to the faculty and got more involved in the union. I was on the executive committee for 10 years. When they gave me the 10-year pin I said, OK, it’s time I stepped down from this. Most of us on the board were, I would say, in our 60s. We needed to get some younger folks involved.”
So then, he helped develop the next generation of local leaders. His advice to young UUP members is pretty basic.
“Work together. As a group you are much more effective than you are fighting one-on-one. Certainly for the younger folks, the union reps on each campus are there to help you. They can talk to you off record, rather than talking to the chair of your department or your manager. Use those folks to help you.”
Whittingham has always embraced a broad approach to education. In England, he studied math, chemistry and physics, but also Latin and other languages. Now, he fears foreign languages are getting left behind.
“My wife teaches languages and I’ve made the point that SUNY has got to keep teaching languages — not cut them out — so we can understand the cultures of other countries. Most of the wars we get into are because we don’t understand other cultures and the way other people think,” he said.
And, “it will keep my wife happy, as well.”
Laureate thanks his teacher
Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work on how cells respond to low oxygen levels. But the Sleepy Hollow High grad does not forget from whence he came: “I had this fantastic biology teacher in ... high school, Rose Nelson, who was an unbelievably talented, beautiful person who was able to transmit the beauty of science and the thrill of scientific discovery,” Semenza told the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2016. The late, longtime member of the Teachers’ Association of the Tarrytowns “had a Ph.D. and had worked at Woods Hole, so she knew what research was, and that was my inspiration.”