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Nov 01

Two Scientists In My Life

For more than fifty years I have been surrounded by scientists and engineers that are my colleagues, teachers, customers and suppliers. Naturally I have great admiration for all my acquaintances and all dedicated scientists, like Madam Curie and Albert Einstein.

I am not stingy in expressing my admiration of my colleagues who are working long hours at their offices and laboratories, sacrificing their private and family lives. But recently I have had two scientists on my mind and I wish to follow in their footsteps and do as they are doing. One is Elaine Smith in California and the other is Joe Ferenci from Hungary.

Elaine is five feet, two inches tall and weighs maybe less than one hundred pounds. She is second generation American of Japanese origin and in her late fifties. She is working at a large oil company and I understand she is the developmental chemist for engine oil additives. Nowadays engine oil specifications are getting tighter to meet EPA requirements. The percentage of Sulfur, NOX content, viscosity of oil in the winter months and fuel economy are great concerns in our industry. Global warming and green chemistry are additional items to make scientists and engineers busier and work diligently to find the right solution.

Two years ago Elaine invited me for lunch at her company function at the International Colloquium of Tribology at the Technische Akademie Esslingen in Esslingen, Germany, near Stuttgart.

She made the presentation of her paper just before lunch about new additives for engine oil. Several colleagues were still discussing her paper about the interesting results and possible joint developmental work for further application under her supervision. I believe that whatever presentation she made it will contribute greatly to the lubricant industry.  Over our buffet lunch I was listening to their discussion with great interest. Her voice was monotonic and she carefully explained the experimental results and cited numbers on Sulfur and Zinc contents in engine oil and the amount of NOX content after a six months field trial in the Los Angeles, California area.

One thing was very clear, that the people around her showed great respect for her and her work. Her innovation might be a great jump to meet the GF-5 new specifications in engine oil.

After lunch I exchanged business cards with her colleagues. Then Elaine and I left the restaurant and walked to the conference. It was a fifteen minute walk from the restaurant to the place the conference was held. In January Esslingen’s temperature is not terribly low but damp. I felt it was colder than in Detroit that has dry low temperature. We walked on the street, lightly covered with snow and ice.

Elaine wore a winter jacket that she used to wear on the East coast, about thirty to forty years ago when she was in college. It did not look warm and the faded gray coat did not fit her well at all, but she did not seem to mind.

“It is chilly and colder than in Detroit,” I said as I broke the silence. “Really?” Elaine said as a question. Quickly I saw her lips had turned purple. “I am getting cold too,” she admitted. “The hot soup at lunch does not affect us in the cold January weather in Esslingen.” After this comment I was quiet for a while.

Later we talked about the conference topics and research issues on engine oil additives and industrial lubricants. Of course, she did most of the talking. After this we split up for different sessions. She went to the fundamentals of lubrication and I was in the metalworking fluids session. During the session I could not concentrate on the speakers.

Elaine’s image came into my mind continually. She did not care about what she wore or what the world thought about her appearance. She continuously devoted her time to research without any distractions.

This was quite a contrast from my case. Before I left for the conference, I organized my suits for each day with different clothes. On Monday, a gray pants suit, Tuesday, a pink wool suit with shirt, Thursday, a red wool jacket and black pants. I even brought medium high heels. I took the same care with my hairdo. I went to a beauty parlor and had a haircut and dye job. I do not spend a lot of time on my appearance but I do care for clean clothes and try to match my clothes to the weather, season and the occasion.

I could feel and imagine that her focus was on just one thing, her work, and her research on additives for engine oil disregarding everything else. Her path is straightforward to achieve her goals.

That evening when I talked with Kwang about Elaine’s devotion, I told him again that I enjoyed being with her and respected her and wished I could have that single-minded devotion to my work. He did not say a single word on the other end of the telephone, but for a long time I had not spoken of my work ethics with him, and I was thrilled that he had just listened. Always my mind was focused on the priority in my life “family is first”.

A week later, after the close of the conference, Kwang picked me up at the Detroit airport. On the way home, in the car, I talked about Elaine and my wish to do research like her for forty five minutes straight, without touching any other topic. After he had listened to me patiently, “Remember your age, Kook-Wha,” was Kwang’s final comment.

Now Joe Ferenci is about five feet, three inches and one hundred twenty five pounds, and very old. He resides in Budapest, Hungary. He has a thin layer of gray hair and wears thick gold-framed eyeglasses.

In the last eight years I have seen him every other year at the International Colloquium Tribology in Esslingen, Germany. I saw him from a distance at the conference room and hall at the mayor’s receptions in Esslingen and Stuttgart. I did not have a chance to say “hello” to him because of my busy schedule with other colleagues from the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Germany and other countries. We were catching up on industry news, especially new product lines and new rules for EHS (environmental, health and safety) in Europe.

In January 2010 Joe was at the Parker, the same hotel in Esslingen where I stayed. I sat at a table where I could see the people come to the door for breakfast.  Joe came in wearing a black suit with a white shirt. I forget what color of necktie he wore, but one special thing hanging around his neck was a black traveler pouch which contained a name tag for the conference inside. He sat down two tables across from me and got coffee and stood up and approached the buffet table. His fragile figure and the very slow movements of his feet added years to his actual age. Then he put a pile of food on his dish and on a separate plate he placed two German sourdough rolls, and sat at the table and started to have breakfast.

While I was chewing my boiled egg and cucumber I was trying to guess his age and debated about how I might start a conversation with him. I ordered one more refill of my coffee and the waiter poured the coffee with precision, not spilling a drop. “Danke Schoen,” I told him, smiling. He nodded and disappeared.

Joe was busy with his breakfast. He had a big appetite. He had not brought any reading material, such as daily newspapers, Die Spiegel or other magazines, like most of the other gentlemen did. He just seemed to concentrate on his eating. After a couple of sips of coffee, I approached his table.

“How are you, Joe? I have seen you at every conference,” I started.

“Yes.  Yes,” Joe replied with a strong accent. He tried to look at my nametag to catch my name.

“My name is Kook-Wha Koh and I come from the USA and attend every conference as you do.”

“Yes. Yes.” Again he said “Yes. Yes.” with a very quiet and brittle voice with no strength at all.

“Where do you come from?” I asked him his country of origin.

“Budapest.” Again a short whispered answer.

“Hungary.” I finished for him.

I hesitated for a few minutes as to whether I should ask him his age. Taking all my courage, “May I ask your age?”

“Eighty-two years old. Next month I will be eighty-three.” Surprisingly, his voice was quite louder than before as he proudly told me his age.

“Thank you.” I asked for his hand and held his hand very tightly.

“When is your presentation?”

“Tomorrow. Wednesday.” Again he answered with a stronger voice.

“Mine is on Thursday, the last day of the conference,” I told him.

With a strong accent, he said, “I developed a new engine oil additive and it improved fuel economy ten to fifteen percent in the field test.” He finished with sparkling bright eyes and several hand gestures.

I thought ten to fifteen percent improvement is great but it depends on the base line that is chosen. Improvement of fuel economy, even one to three percent is a great number. Ten to fifteen percent is an extremely good number if we can achieve it. Frankly, both scientists who I admire are working on engine oil additives. I had many questions as a layman on engine oil additives, but I stopped my line of questions and praised his work for his age.

Before I left the breakfast room I said, “Good luck, Joe, with your presentation tomorrow.”

Joe Ferenci continues to work as a technical director in Budapest. His research work is presented to the world and contributes to our society. I prayed for his health and that he may have many more years of research work.

Admiring these two scientists and continuing my own work, I hope that I also have many more years to go before my own retirement with the following prayer:

Please, always put my family first, and let my passion for my work stay in my heart for a long, long time.

* The story is factual but the names have been changed to protect their privacy.

9 comments

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  1. kook -Wha Koh

    Thank you for your comment

  2. Kelly Bixby

    Kook-wha, you described your colleagues with apparent, heart-felt admiration. I particularly enjoyed seeing the contrast between your and Elaine’ attention to clothing and appearance. We all have to decide what’s important, don’t we? One thing is certain, I admire you for your storytelling.

  3. Book Lover

    My admiration extends to you for sharing so beautifully your interest in the scientists you met.

  4. Claire Murray

    Good story, Kook-Wha. So nice to hear about your work and the people who are contributing so much to help us advance. Very interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    1. Kook-Wha Koh

      Thanks, Claire for your comment and tireless editing and corrections.

  5. Sue Remisiewicz

    I enjoyed your inspiring story of two people so passionate and dedicated to their work.

    1. kook-Wha Koh

      Thanks, Sue:
      I admire their passion for their work.

      Thanks for your comment

  6. Yibbity

    Not really interested in “oil” but found your factual story interesting.

    1. Kook-Wha Koh

      Thank you very much

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