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James Wightman

By Matthew Winston

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 27 - April 6, 1995

He has been named Outstanding Scientist of the Year. He has received NASA's Public Service Award. He has won the Adhesives Age Award. He has received Virginia Tech's Wine Award for outstanding teaching. He has been awarded the coveted Adhesive and Sealant Council Award. He is Jim Wightman, alumni distinguished professor of chemistry.

Wightman will receive the Sporn Award for Teaching Introductory Subjects at Founders Day ceremonies. This is an award of a different nature. The Sporn Award is voted on by the students of Virginia Tech.

Wightman teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in general chemistry, physical chemistry, surface chemistry, and his specialty, adhesion science. And the students from his classes do not hesitate to praise Wightman for his teaching methods.

"He makes chemistry actually exciting and fun to learn," says one student. Another student adds, "Dr. Wightman makes everyday things relate to chemistry. That makes us want to get involved."

Wightman says he came to Virginia Tech in the first place because he wanted to teach as well as do research. His exciting and colorful style provides him the chance to teach surface-chemistry experiments to college students, peer professors, industry groups, alumni, cub scouts, Kiwanis, and grade-school kids.

Many students note the novel methods Wightman uses to teach his classes and to encourage participation. He has put out fires with ear wax and has attached airplane wings to his own car in the name of teaching and research. He has also been known to dress up as Ben Franklin to reenact Franklin's 1760 demonstration of surface chemistry in which he poured oil on an English pond. "I pour vegetable oil in the Duck Pond- -it doesn't hurt the ducks," Wightman says. "We do it on a windy day and it smoothes the water until it produces a perfect reflection."

One student said Wightman promises to pay $100 to any student if he makes light of the student's questions in class. "Dr. Wightman really respects the students in the class. He does not want us to not ask questions because we may think they will be dumb questions."

Wightman is currently the associate editor of the Journal of Adhesion and is the past director of the Center for Adhesive and Sealant Science at Virginia Tech. He received a B.S. in chemistry from Randolph- Macon College and a Ph.D. from Lehigh University. He did postdoctoral work at Penn State before coming to Virginia Tech.

Wightman has conducted adhesion science research for NASA's Langley Research Center, where he first began studying the effects of space on materials by placing polymers in vacuum chambers. Later he studied heat shields and surface tension and adhesion as it relates to spacecraft and airplane parts. His research continues today, funded by a variety of industries.

"The students are a large part of my product," Wightman said. "That training is the important part of the research at a university, including undergraduate education."