Associate Professor of Chemistry
If chemist Peter Baran created a soundtrack for his life, some of the songs describing his career might include The Long and Winding Road, I Get Around, I've Been Everywhere, King of the Road and Ramblin' Man.
As others might guess from that playlist, Baran has taken a circuitous route to his present position as Juniata's resident inorganic chemist. "When I visited Juniata for my interview I couldn't imagine anything better for me," he says. "The countryside reminded me very much of my home country and the people here were all very friendly to our family."
The "home country" Peter refers to is Slovakia, an Eastern European independent nation born from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and later of Czechoslovakia. Peter's path to the United States was in one sense foretold when his homeland split apart, but in another sense by no means was his journey to Juniata an easy decision.
"I thought I would be the last person to ever leave my country," Peter says at the end of a long telephone interview from the office he's working at during a sabbatical at Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. But he did, and the story of his odyssey is one of discovery, both scientific and personal.
Born in the small city of Trnova (pronounced Toonava) in then-Czechoslovakia, Peter was always interested in the mysteries of life and science. At first his interest was spiritual, as he told his parents in third grade that he planned to become a Catholic priest, an ambition that was at odds with Czechoslovakia's socialist ruling class. "The Communist Party did not oppose religion, but it was difficult to get good jobs if you were not a member of the party," he explains. "My parents were working class, so nobody cared that we went to church."
Soon however, Peter's curiosity turned away from pure faith to more earthbound pursuits. He realized that science could be just as mystical as religion, and more to the point: he could study science more openly. At first, he looked to the earth, studying geology. Then he became interested in the heavens and took classes in astronomy. Then physics.
"I was really changing my mind, I explored nature, I explored space, but what I really wanted was to discover things," he says. "I always wanted to know how things are organized--how does it work? In the end I chose to study a much smaller, more manageable universe."
For Baran, the more manageable domain was the periodic table of elements--more specifically, inorganic chemistry. "I thought it was so simple and so easy to understand," he says. "I realized later after I came to university that it was the other way around."
In Eastern Europe at that time, most children were directed, through testing, toward university studies or technical studies. In 1981, Peter was directed to the University of Slovakia Technical University. "In this setting you don't just study chemistry, you pick a specialty from Day One," he explains. He chose physical chemistry. After five years as an undergraduate, he was chosen to complete his doctorate at the same university, where he studied inorganic chemistry. Inorganic chemistry can focus on many disparate topics, such as metallurgy, materials science, nanotechnology and many more.
He was hired by his alma mater in 1992 as an assistant professor and began to pursue teaching and his research in transition metal complexes with aromatic n-oxides. Explained simply, he studies metal molecules with unique properties that can be used as catalysts in pharmaceuticals and in electronics.
"There is a huge potential for inquiry," Peter explains. "I like the diversity of topics. There is a great future for scientists in it." Peter was prescient about the great future for inorganic chemists, but he did not foresee a downturn in fortunes for Eastern European scientists as first the Soviet Union broke apart, and then Czechoslovakia.
"When the Communist regime fell apart in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution, I was a graduate student, which was a major break for me," he says. "Before then, members of the party were given preference for university positions, so (after the revolution) it was a more even playing field."
When Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1992, there was more freedom for both Czechs and Slovaks, but economic and social factors weighed down the economies of both countries. Government funding for research dried up. Czech president Vaclav Havel closed the Czechoslovakian weapons industry (most of the factories were in Peter's native Slovakia), throwing thousands out of work.
"We had no money to buy chemicals, our instruments were old," he recalls. "At home we had two children, I was building my house, and soon we couldn't survive even on two incomes." Peter made a decision to enter industry, taking a job in 1998 with Amylum, a Belgian-owned company, making fructose corn syrup. Despite doubling his paycheck, life was anything but sweet as an industry chemist. "I was used to doing what I really liked to do. Industry works under different rules," he says.
A colleague told Peter of a collaborative Slovak/Greek project offering a job to set up the venture's lab in Puerto Rico. After checking to see if his wife, Lubica Baranova, a mechanical engineer in a Slovakian automotive plant, could find a job in the Caribbean island, he accepted.
"They kept asking me to stay longer and longer but it was clear I couldn't stay forever," he says. "We had to make a decision to go back to Slovakia and start again or look for a tenure-track position in America."
While the Barans experienced culture shock moving to the sunny climes of Puerto Rico, when Peter was asked to interview at Juniata in 2004, the transition was much easier. "It was like coming back home," he says. "Slovakia is very similar to Pennsylvania."
Seeking a college where he could teach and do research, Juniata soon rose to the top of his list. In fact, after interviewing at the College, he cancelled his other interviews. The teaching culture was different. Slovakian students are left pretty much on their own and the only test is a big one at the end of the year. Eventually he became comfortable with Juniata's more experiential educational style. His daughter Zuzana '08 is now studying chemistry at Texas A&M. His son Matej is at Drury University studying architecture.
"Working with undergraduates keeps me feeling young," says Peter, who seems happy to stay at Juniata. "I can imagine that anything can happen in life's journey, but I'm (happy) to say I'm settled."
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