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March 24, 2006 > News > Smalley honored at service

Smalley honored at service

A model of a buckyball sat on the podium as colleagues, students, friends and family of Richard Smalley spoke about his influence on Rice and the world at a memorial service Tuesday. About 150 people attended the service held in the Grand Hall.

Smalley, a physics and university professor who died in October 2005, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for discovering buckminsterfullerenes, now known as buckyballs. Smalley came to Rice in 1976 and invented four new fields of chemical research while here.

President David Leebron opened the service by praising Smalley’s contributions.

“Rick was much more to Rice than a successful scientist and teacher,” Leebron said. “He embodied the spirit of our university and the great desire to serve.”

After Leebron’s opening, eight speakers followed with memories, insights and anecdotes.

Physics Professor Neal Lane, a former National Science Foundation director, spoke about Smalley’s public advocacy for nanotechnology. Lane said many policies resulted from Smalley’s efforts.

“Rick was the model of a civic scientist,” Lane said. “He went out to the public in an effort to solve the world’s problems.”

Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology Director Wade Adams praised Smalley’s effect on the academic environment at Rice, which he said Smalley loved. Adams said Smalley cared about other faculty members at Rice and was determined that his dreams be carried out after his death.

“What we’re left with from Rick’s great career is his vision,” Adams said. “He was a pied piper, and many of us answered his call.”

Nobel Prize winner and former chemistry professor Robert Curl (‘54) worked with Smalley for 10 years. During that time, Smalley, Curl and University of Sussex professor Harold Kroto discovered buckyballs.

Curl said Smalley was remarkably flexible and was never discouraged by an unsuccessful experiment. Curl also said Smalley had tremendous personal charisma, which he used to persuade the U.S. government to support nanotechnology.

“Rick always wanted to make an impact,” Curl said. “He was enormously creative, unpredictable, scheming, persuasive and tenderhearted. I will miss him.”

Chemistry graduate student Paul Cherukuri, one of Smalley’s students, spoke about visiting Smalley in the hospital during the last few weeks of Smalley’s life. Cherukuri said that even as Smalley was dying, Smalley talked to him about career options.

“He cared about each and every one of his students,” Cherukuri said. “He inspired us. Each of his students coming out of Rice are on a mission.”

Baker College senior Erica Flor, another of Smalley’s students, said Smalley’s presence was influential in her decision to come to Rice. She took a class with Smalley as a freshman and decided to work in his lab. Flor said she has never met a scientist with such charm and promise.

“No one has ever been a better candidate for solving the world’s problems,” Flor said.

Former Rice president Malcolm Gillis, like Cherukuri, said Smalley was his mentor. Gillis said Smalley contributed greatly to Rice by teaching undergraduates as well as doing research.

“Over the years, I came to regard Rick as one of the world’s paragons of understanding and insight,” Gillis, an economics and university professor, said. “His interests could never be confined to any disciplinary boundaries.”

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who worked with Smalley to start a collaborating group of scientists across Texas, said Smalley’s contributions were innumerable.

“This great man who touched so many will never die,” Hutchinson said. “When a soldier’s life is saved because better, stronger, lighter armor is on him; when a lighter, stronger airplane flies in the sky; or when a particle in a bloodstream protects against a disease, Richard Smalley lives.”

Debbie Smalley, his widow, concluded the service by presenting Smalley’s Nobel Prize to the university and by thanking Rice for its outpouring of love and support.

“Rick was true to Rice, and you were true to him,” she said. “Rice, you are the rightful heirs to Rick’s mission.”

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