An academic for life
By Gerard O'Brien
Douglas Fuerstenau can remember the dust bowl days of the Great Depression, growing up in South Dakota.
"The dust would collect like snow drifts against the fence lines," he said.
Because of that, he was no stranger to hard work and took jobs where he could find them.
"I might have been 12 when I worked 10 hours a day for 8 cents an hour pulling weeds for a local gardener and earned $5 a week, $20 monthly." He even had charge of shepherding some 2,000 sheep on the North Dakota prairie at the tender age of 14. He earned $35 a month for working seven days a week.
Fuerstenau always kept higher education in mind as did his parents for their children. And becoming an academic was the key goal in his life. He was able to complete high school a year early and cut a swath through college and grad school as well at an early age.
He always considered himself a creative problem-solver and believed he passed this knack onto his son, who works for the Jet Propulsion Labs in California, and is a key player on the Mars land rover projects.
Today, he's traveled the globe, visiting nearly every country except the Middle East. Last year he and his wife traveled to such diverse places as South America, Panama, Portugal, Spain, China and Japan.
Q. How did you choose your area of study?
A. In high school I had a superb math teacher and an excellent chemistry teacher, both of whom inspired me towards a technical career. I lived in Rapid City, S.D., and entered the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology as an undergraduate, with the initial aim to study chemistry. As a junior, I changed my major to metallurgical engineering. I became quite interested in minerals, and that probably oriented me towards mineral processing. Four different summers I worked in the metallurgical industry: two summers for US Steel in Chicago, one summer at Bunker Hill Smelter in Kellogg, Idaho, and one summer in the copper-zinc mill of Howe Sound Co. in Holden, Wash. I feel that those summer jobs were very important in my career development.
I was not an undergrad at Tech, but got a master's degree there. I'm glad I went there because it changed the chronology of my life — first in determining my educational program at MIT and more importantly, with events that led to meeting my wife in Cambridge, Mass. (As an aside, that year, the winter temperature hit minus 52 degrees, twice).
I was 16 as a college freshman in the fall of 1945 when soldiers much older and more experienced than I were coming back from World War II. I had a friend who had a car and we used to drive around the Black Hills of South Dakota. That's what got me interested in mineral processing. So I applied to five different places to go to graduate school, including MIT, and was accepted to all five.
Q. Why did you choose Montana Tech over other schools?
A. I decided to go to Butte for a year before MIT, which I did, because the Montana School of Mines had a good reputation; it was really outstanding in metallurgy. I got my master's at Tech and a doctorate later at MIT. Professor Antoine M. Gaudin, who was the giant in the field, was at Tech from 1929 to '39, and I later worked for him at MIT. He really built up his reputation at Tech.
Butte had all the mines running during my year there, and we were right in the midst of it.
A good friend from South Dakota, Frank Aplan, was a teaching assistant in Butte. He had a car and we used to drive around and visit the operations in Anaconda and Great Falls and mines in the area. It added a lot to one's experience.
I was interested in processing minerals by flotation, which depends on surface chemistry. Through the decades I've written about 400 papers on flotation research and other aspects of metallurgy.
Basically, the geologist finds an ore body, the mining engineer gets it out of the earth, then the ore is crushed and ground and the valuable minerals are separated from the waste rock — which is generally done by flotation. In flotation, the fine particles stick to air bubbles that rise to the surface of the flotation machine, where they are skimmed off. By adding waxy reagents the mineral particles can be made water repellent, just as water beads up on the wax on your car.
About 1½ percent of all the electrical in the U.S. is consumed in crushing and grinding ores, coal, making cement, etc. Worldwide, 3% of electricity goes into crushers and mills. The goal here is to reduce that usage through increasing efficiencies.
Q. What is your proudest moment in your career?
A. I have received many awards over the years. For example, we were in China last month, and I was appointed Honorary Professor at Central South University in Changsha and also received the International Mineral Processing Congress Council Award in Beijing for my contributions to the International Mineral Processing Congress. In 1995, I received their highest award, namely the IMPC Lifetime Achievement Award.
But the proudest moment must have been when I was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1976, considered a highest honor for an engineer in the United States.
When I received my doctorate at MIT, Prof. Gaudin asked me to stay on as an assistant professor, which I did for three years. But I wanted to work in the industry for a while. I was offered a job with Union Carbide in Niagara Falls at their Metals Research Lab. The person who hired me was a Rush Spedden, who was an assistant professor at MIT when I arrived. By the way, Spedden received his Master’s degree from Tech 10 years before I did. I was in charge of a mineral engineering group at Union Carbide. We worked on raw materials for ferroalloys, such as nickel and chromium, and manganese minerals for batteries. After a couple of years I started to negotiate coming to the University of California in Berkeley.
However, people at Kaiser Aluminum offered me a job as manager of their mineral engineering lab at Permanente, Calif., which I took for a year. I was 29 at the time. I told them that I was in the process of moving to Berkeley, but they wanted me for the intervening year and tried to get me to stay on. In the fall of 1959 I came to Berkeley, had have been here ever since.
Q. What goals did you accomplish of which you are most proud?
A. I am most proud of the large number of graduate students that have been educated under me. Seventy-one students completed master's degree theses under my supervision, and 60 their doctoral dissertations. As of 2005, I had 60 Ph.D. students, 156 Ph.D. grand-students and 87 great-grand-students. That represents 87 different four generations of Ph.Ds. It always is a pleasure to meet one's grand-students and great-grand-students. I am proud that I inspired 25 of my former students to enter an academic career at universities around the world, some for a few years and others for their entire career.
Much of my career has been devoted to mineral and particulate processing research, together with graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. Our research has resulted in major contributions to the understanding of the flotation process, surface chemistry of mineral-water systems, modeling crushing and grinding systems, energy reduction in grinding, delineating the fundamental principles involved in pelletizing iron ores, and other areas related to the processing of solids. Our research has been recognized worldwide.
Q. Tell us about some memorable college experience, either how it applies to your work today or just something that was fun for you at Tech.
A. My time in Butte involved both hard work and relaxation. Midweek, I worked long and hard on courses and the laboratory measurements that were the basis of my Master’s thesis. Weekends were for relaxation. All of the mines were then operating and Butte was an extremely active place. I recall going down on Saturday nights to a place called the C.O.D. that about half the time had a great Dixieland band. I used to draw cartoons a lot, and Butte Beer had a weekly contest that would give a case of beer for the winning doodle cartoon that was published in The Montana Standard. I kept us well stocked with beer with these cartoons, often putting someone else's name on the cartoon to spread things about. We visited mills and smelters in the area. On a couple of occasions we went underground in the mines, a memorable one being the Travona where the ore was a wide vein of pink rhodachrosite (manganese carbonate).
Q. Who is a favorite hero to you, mentor, public, private and why?
A. I patterned my life after Professor Antoine M. Gaudin. He did his whole career as an academic and stayed very active. He had great stature nationally and internationally. Gaudin was really my inspiration. I got to know him well, first as a student and then as a colleague. Gaudin was a great inspiration to many persons who studied under him, both at Butte and at MIT.
Q. How did Tech serve you in the past, or currently?
A. I recall two well-organized courses that benefited me, one by Professor Don McGlashan and an advanced inorganic chemistry course by Professor Edwin Koch. I believe that I learned to undertake a research problem systematically from Professor McGlashan. Unfortunately, McGlashan did not publish much in the way of technical papers, but he had many good ideas with which he inspired his graduate students. I think that by being located in Butte, Tech created in me a distinct interest in the mining industry. For 22 years I was a member of the Board of Directors of Homestake Mining Co., and my time in Butte provided background knowledge of mining and mining communities.
Q. How do you stay connected to Montana Tech?
A. I kept in touch with Professor McGlashan while he was active.
Several of my friends and professional colleagues were graduates of Montana School of Mines. I would meet several faculty members at technical conferences through the years.
For a number of years I was a member of a board or council of the Foundation. Also I had considerable contact through the years with a number of presidents (now called chancellors), e.g. Edwin Koch, Norman Lindsay and Frank Gilmore.
Q. What advice would you give high school students who are considering entering college?
A. Assuming that the student likes and does well in math, chemistry and physics courses, consider majoring in college in science or engineering. If he or she has an interest in applied phenomena, my suggestion is to major in engineering. An engineering major can be the start of a career in technology itself, or it provides a good undergraduate degree for going on into medicine, law, business, etc. I know several young people today who are in these professions whose undergraduate degrees were in different engineering fields.
In addition to the scientific courses, I strongly suggest that students learn communication skills, perhaps writing more than speaking. In addition, people interaction skills are valuable in the long run.
I think that going to a college recognized for its programs, such as Montana Tech, and doing well there can lead to going on to a major university if high-level graduate study is the overall objective. My undergraduate studies were at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology plus the M.S. program at Montana School of Mines, and I found that I could compete on an equal footing with graduate students at MIT who had undergraduate degrees from all around the U.S. and other parts of the world.
My final comment is to work hard during the few years of high school and college, because what one acquires and learns during those few years will determine the directions and quality of the rest of your life.
About Douglas W. Fuerstenau, 79
Current address: 1440 Le Roy Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94708
Job title: Professor Emeritus of Mineral Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720
Brief work history: 1953-56: Assistant Professor of Mineral Engineering , MIT 1956-58: Section Leader, Mineral Engineering Group, Union Carbide Metals Co., Niagara Falls N.Y.
1958-59: Manager of Mineral Engineering, Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Co., Permanente, Calif. 1959 to date" Professor, Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering, University of California at Berkeley; (Professor Emeritus, 1993: Professor in the Graduate School, 1994 to date)
Personal data: Spouse: Margaret, B.A. in American History, Radcliffe College, M.S. in Library Science, Simmons College Daughters: Lucy, B.S. in Nursing, Fresno State University, Sarah, B.A. in Landscape Architecture, Univ. of Calif. Berkeley; B. Landscape Arch. University of Oregon Son: Stephen, B.S. in Chemical Engineering, University of Calif., San Diego; Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, Yale University.
When did you attend Tech and degrees earned: 1949-50, M.S. in Mineral Dressing Engineering 1968: Mineral Dressing Engineer degree