Retiree Profile: Howard Mettee

Dr. Howard Mettee
Dr. Howard Mettee

As some of our most beloved faculty and staff retired this summer, YSU STEM wants to take the time to acknowledge those who have been exceptional. This is the second part of this two-part series, where we highlight two of our faculty as they continue on to the next chapter of their lives.

This summer, professor of physical chemistry Howard Mettee retired after 47 years of service to the YSU community.

I came in the fall of 1968, one year after the private Youngstown University became Youngstown State University,” Dr. Mettee said. “I came because there was a move at the same time to start a graduate Master’s Program. … For scientists like chemists, this meant educating students not only in the facts and theories of chemistry, but now conducting publishable experiments with student participation, and attempting to contribute to the growing knowledge bank of a vital science.”

After being on staff for about two years, faculty size doubled, with the added faculty all being required to have a Ph.D. For existing faculty, the opportunity was there for them to hone their research skills.

“This meant that as the newest addition to the State of Ohio’s network of 11 research universities, we could add a 12th one, YSU, and this opened the door to our faculty and students to operate in a more competitive league with our sister universities,” Mettee said. “At that time I figured we’d have a Ph.D. program or two in the next 10 years or so. This was opportunity knocking.”

Soon, Mettee and his students began research programs in as many directions they could handle.

“I was able to get a Research Corporation grant to measure absolute fluorescence yields, something I started in on a 2 year postdoc at UT in Austin with W. Albert Noyes, one of the fathers of photochemistry,” Mettee said. “I also started a program measuring the intensity of chemiluminescence of NaCl flames as a way of seeing how vibrational energy might be transferred between ‘hot molecules’ produced, because chemistry begins with energy transfer. We also started following some rates of chlorination experiments of alcohols by infrared spectroscopy, a field I grew up in in graduate school in Calgary, Alberta.  We managed to publish some papers in the SO2 fluorescence and phosphorescence field, and in the hot molecule area of the NaCl chemiluminescent flames, which followed some of Michael Polanyi’s work and that of Kitigawa, Lee and Herschfeld at Harvard. These were exciting experiments for me, a delicious combination of thermodynamics, kinetics and spectroscopy, the three pillars of physical chemistry – which tries to explain why chemistry happens at all.”

As a tenured professor, Mettee climbed the academic ranks at YSU, although he was turned down the first time he tried to go from an associate to a full professor.

“If you’re tenured you get more chances to advance over these hurdles, so that part is more critical. You have to show some kind of promise that you can do something, both to yourself and your colleagues, in the three areas of teaching, research and university service,” Mettee said. “In the end, you define yourself professionally in these avenues, and I was most proud of really two things – one, which combined both service and research, and the other, one that opened up the world of international science to me through working with professional colleagues in Russia under a Fulbright Scholarship.”

In 1979 Dr. Mettee took his family to Cal Berkeley, where he worked with Nobel Laureate Melvin Calvin for a year.

“Not only was this combining service and scholarship, but the papers produced with Melvin probably had a lot to do with my  getting promoted to Full Professor a year or two later,” Mettee said. “Those were all proud days for me.”

In 1990, Dr. Mettee started his international work with Russia, and in 1997 he taught biotechnology at St. Petersburg Forest Technical University for a year. Later, he received a joint grant from the US Civilian Research and Development and Russian Federation Bureau of Research to study pyrolitic oils as a biofuel. In 2010, this university honored his service by giving him an Honorary Doctorate.

“It is very hard for me to pick  which one of these moments — getting and taking a great sabbatical, and having Melvin come to YSU, or, working with my Russian colleagues and being honored by them for our joint efforts — I see them as intertwined and core accomplishments that made my professional life at YSU – which by the way, I hope isn’t over yet.”