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The fortuitous journey of Eli Ruckenstein
To bear witness
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When it's pointed out how frequently he refers to fate, Ruckenstein answers that it's not out of character for a man who works in the world of science to marvel at the nature of destiny. "Even in science there is luck," he says. "Life is not a syllogism and science is not a syllogism. There is nothing absolute."

Dr. Ruckenstein with his wife, Velina, a chemist. Meeting her was "the most lucky event in my life."
  The fortuitous journey of
Eli Ruckenstein

Story by Nicole Peradotto Photography by Frank Miller

Cover portrait of Dr. Eli Ruckenstein by Reanna Kaopuiki

    For a man of science, Eli Ruckenstein is a strong believer in the whim of fate. He refers to it when he recalls the dramatic circumstances that brought him to the United States from Romania 33 years ago. He refers to it when he remembers the arduous ordeal he and his wife endured to extricate their children from the Communist country. And when he looks at the whole of his life's experiences to this point—the pendulum swing from poverty, famine and forced labor to winning America's crowning honor in science—he surmises, simply, "I am a very lucky man."

    To hear his story, it's easy to understand why the SUNY Distinguished Professor considers himself beholden to chance encounters and propitious timing. But if happy accidents helped give Ruckenstein the academic freedom he craved, he more than paid his debt back with the numerous advances he has made across a broad spectrum of scientific inquiry.

    Last year, the 76-year-old chemical engineer published 30 articles in scientific and scholarly journals. According to Mark H. Karwan, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a healthy annual publication rate for a chemical engineer is five or six articles.

    "He's one of the most prolific publishers at UB," Karwan says. "He hasn't slowed down his research because there's so much he wants to accomplish. He'll call his graduate students at 10 o'clock at night to find out the results of a study. He finds his work exciting, and he just keeps going."

    Ruckenstein's unswerving dedication to science has earned him a number of coveted awards from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the National Science Foundation and the American Chemical Society.

    By far the most prestigious recognition of his work came in 1998, when then-President Clinton announced that, for his various theories and discoveries, Ruckenstein had won the United States' highest honor for scientific achievement—the National Medal of Science.

    "Let me see if I can find it," Ruckenstein says, rifling through a closet in his Eggertsville home for the medal he received during a White House ceremony.

    "It's in here somewhere."

    Once he locates the impressive piece of hardware in the blue velvet box, however, the forward-thinking chemical engineer is not inclined to linger over it. Sure, some consider the medal the U.S. equivalent of the Nobel Prize, but Ruckenstein is more eager to tear open the Federal Express envelope that has landed on his doorstep—an update about the latest patent he has applied for.

    "Of course, I was happy for a few days," shrugs Ruckenstein, referring to the honor.

    "For an immigrant in this country who does not speak English well to win this ... ." His voice trails off.

    "This is a generous country—more generous than any other country. If you work hard, people will recognize you."

    That was not always the case for Ruckenstein. To understand how his fierce work ethic developed, and why he's so passionate about science, one must first appreciate the obstacles he surmounted to get to where he is today.

    The son of a bookkeeper, Ruckenstein grew up in Botosani, a small town in the north of Romania, developing an interest in science and math as a teenager. Coming of age during World War II, he was forced to forgo his last two years of high school. Like many Jews who lived in Romania during the period that the country allied itself with Nazi Germany, young Eli was forced into manual labor. Six days a week, 12 hours a day, he carried bricks at a construction site. In his rare free time, he studied for his school's final exams.

    "I used every free moment to learn," he remembers. "When you are busy, you organize your time better and are more efficient.

    "And when you don't have alternatives, what else can you do?"

    Ruckenstein not only passed the tests; he aced them. In December of 1944, he left his hometown for college. Since the Romanian trains were not running then—the Soviets, who had occupied the country that spring, had changed the size of the railroad lines to accommodate Russian trains—he squeezed into a crowded truck bound for Bucharest.

    Accepted into that city's Polytechnic University, Ruckenstein studied chemical technology. He readily adjusted to the rigors of his course load; acclimating to urban life took longer. "I was afraid to take the trolley," he says. "I was afraid to use the telephone. My childhood was without a radio and without a telephone. So when I arrived in Bucharest, I felt lost."

    After Ruckenstein's first year of college, the country endured a famine. To sustain himself each day, he ate a single meal at the university cafeteria. "There was no bread, which was our main food," he recalls, adding with a broad grin: "Today, I am the biggest eater of bread in the United States."

    While still an undergraduate, he married Velina Rotstein, whom he had met at a party. "I think this was the most lucky event in my life," Ruckenstein says. "I am indebted to her in many ways. She's a good wife, a good mother, a good friend and a good neighbor."

    A year later, in 1949, Ruckenstein was hired as an assistant professor at Polytechnic University of Bucharest, where he received his Ph.D., and remained as a faculty member for 20 years.

    Working as a scientist under Communist rule, Ruckenstein knew both success and suppression. For his advances in the field of transport phenomena, he won four national awards in Romania, including one from the Romanian Academy of Science—the first time a professor from his university was so honored.

    At the same time, it was nearly impossible for him to publish his findings in non-Communist countries. Equipment and resource materials were so scarce that when Ruckenstein got his hands on a scientific journal, he committed relevant articles to memory. Because he didn't join the Communist Party, he often became a target for party members.

    "The pressure of the party was increasing tremendously," he remembers. "At meetings, I was always criticized. They would speak of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Ruckenstein—with one difference. They would say good things about the first four men, and bad things about the fifth."

    Such jokes come easily to Ruckenstein now. At the time, however, being labeled a reactionary wasn't helping his career.

    Then, in 1969, the National Science Foundation announced a teaching grant that would give a European scientist a one-year teaching appointment at Clarkson College (now Clarkson University) in Potsdam, New York. Ruckenstein's name appeared on the list of candidates, but behind three other prospects.

    As luck would have it, the Russian scientist at the top of the list declined the invitation. In turn, so did the German researcher. Likewise the third candidate, a British scientist by the name of Brook Benjamin. By the time Benjamin changed his mind and decided he wanted to take the position, Ruckenstein had already eagerly accepted the offer.

    With his invitation secured, Ruckenstein faced yet another stumbling block: How would he manage to travel to the United States for a year if he wasn't allowed to leave Romania for so much as a two-day academic conference? With help from the mother of one of his students, the scientist was granted an audience with the deputy minister of education, who granted him a visa.

    While their two teenaged children, Lelia and Andrei, stayed behind with Velina's parents in Romania, the couple settled in Potsdam. It was early during his tenure at Clarkson that the Ruckensteins decided that the family should live permanently in the United States.

    Finding a permanent teaching position, at the University of Delaware, took little effort, but it would be two trying years before he and his wife would see their children again.

    Although he had left behind the hardships of Romania, Ruckenstein faced new problems in the United States. He was struggling with the language and adjusting to a new style of work. Then there was the considerable heartache of being separated from his children.

    At times, he and Velina were so paranoid that the phone lines were tapped in their native country that they wouldn't reveal their plans to their children. "When you come from a Communist country," Ruckenstein acknowledges, "you think there is a spy in every tree."

    At one point, a Romanian family informed the couple that they could buy a pair of visas for $12,000. When the banks rejected the Ruckenstein's appeal for a loan, his colleagues raised the money overnight. Unfortunately, the plan failed, bitterly disappointing the couple, and the money was returned.

    Shortly thereafter, however, their fortune changed. Through a chance meeting, the Ruckensteins were put in touch with a man who did business with the Romanian government. It was this businessman—a virtual stranger—who would successfully negotiate the Ruckensteins' reunion with their children.

    To this day Ruckenstein marvels at the profound impact a stranger can have on someone else's life. "You see how important the accidents of life are for your destiny?

    "On what depends the fate of an individual and his family?" he asks. "Sometimes, just a detail."

    When it's pointed out how frequently he refers to fate, Ruckenstein answers that it's not out of character for a man who works in the world of science to marvel at the nature of destiny.

    "Even in science there is luck," he says. "Life is not a syllogism and science is not a syllogism. There is nothing absolute."

    Since 1973, Ruckenstein has been a UB faculty member. The chemical engineer is the only full-time professor who's a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering. He's also the only National Medal of Science winner in UB history.

    You might think a scientist of his stature would lay claim to more spacious digs than the 10-by-10-foot Furnas Hall office where Ruckenstein works. Even his laboratory doesn't boast the latest equipment.

    "He manages to be tremendously productive using equipment that really isn't state of the art," notes Carl Lund, chairman of the chemical engineering department. "For him, the most important thing is a challenging problem rather than, ‘What equipment can I get to manage that problem?' If he spends the money on equipment, he can't hire as many students to help him tackle problems. If he had to choose, he would not buy the equipment and tackle three problems instead of buying new equipment and tackling only one."

    It turns out that Ruckenstein's most valuable resource can't be purchased with foundation grants or department stipends. After all, you can't buy an insatiable appetite for discovery.

    "It is interesting to find something in science which has novelty," the scientist says of his motivation.

    "It is very difficult to find something that has a high [degree of] novelty. And there are very few scientists who find something great in their lifetime, but all of the various contributions to science are helpful."

    In his half-century-plus career, Ruckenstein has made plenty of them. Since coming to the United States his research has expanded into such areas as catalysis, surface phenomena, emulsions, biocompatible surfaces and materials. Indeed, Ruckenstein has been awarded nine patents, including one for heat conducting materials that IBM licensed for use in the company's mainframe computers.

    "His field is very broad," says George Lee, director of the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research. Lee got to know Ruckenstein when the former became dean of the engineering school in 1977.

    "Eli remembers everything. He's a walking library about the state of research. He has an in-depth understanding of many subfields in engineering, and in science in general. What makes a scientist like Eli great is that his knowledge is so broad that he can see the interface between fields. That's where new knowledge is generated."

    Ruckenstein admits that he moves from one corner of science to another with ease. He's not afraid to venture into unfamiliar terrain if it means he can solve some of the mysteries of science.

    "To be mistaken is not the worst thing," Ruckenstein says. "Much of what people are doing builds on the mistakes of someone else. And mistakes sometimes suggest the right solution. The worst thing," he concludes, "is to be banal."

Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer in the Buffalo area.

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