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Eccentric Mixture:
LSU Professor of Chemistry epitomizes the bow tie-wearing, quirky professor

To a chemist, mixing disparate elements and compounds to create something new is simply a day in the lab, but LSU Chemistry Professor John Pojman has taken this to another level – combining amphibians, vogue style, space flight and pocket protectors with a result that makes him a unique figure on LSU’s campus.

A selection from Professor John Pojman's impressive pocket protector collection.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

Pojman shares his second-floor office in Choppin Hall with a large aquarium, home not to brightly colored tropical fish, but an eel-like creature named Chrissy, a three-toed amphiuma, and a handful of crawfish that are, as he puts it, “food, not friends.” While it is difficult to ignore the amphibian in the room, all the attention immediately lands on the man wearing the bow tie and pocket protector sitting behind the desk.

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Pojman moved to New Orleans in 1990 and commuted to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was a chemistry professor. After Hurricane Katrina forced Pojman and his family to relocate temporarily to Baton Rouge in 2005, a job offer from LSU allowed him to move to the Red Stick permanently in August 2008. Since then, students have grown accustomed to seeing a dapper Pojman, clad in a seersucker suit, bow tie and his ever-growing array of pocket protectors, strolling around campus or in a lecture hall.

Pojman’s collection of pocket protectors numbers well into the thousands and, while he views his collection as “priceless,” the cost of purchasing each protector adds up to nearly $6,000. Each one has been scanned and loaded onto his website, http://pocketprotectors.info, or “The World’s Largest Webseum of Pocket Protectors!”

His collection includes several from notable companies, the American Chemistry Society, one custom-made alligator skin protector and some he made himself.

“I love my carp leather pocket protectors, which I made myself,” said Pojman, who has truly adopted the look of the stereotypical professor; from his ink-stain stopping protectors to adopting a bow tie. Pojman’s affinity for the bow is not rooted in style but practicality.

“I have a fear of getting my tie in gumbo ... seriously, I like the fact that it is not the ‘norm,’” jokes Pojman.  “I don’t want to be mistaken for a corporate executive.  Professors should have a bit of style.” 

Pojman’s style is ever evolving and has begun to include more than just a bow tie and the necessary pocket protector.

“I am starting to wear ascots, even more eccentric.  My favorite part of Toy Story 3 is when some character meets the Ken doll and says, ‘Nice ascot,’” said Pojman.

Pojman’s style matches his personality:  attention grabbing and fun. Easy to laugh and filled with one-liners, he is open and engaging – something that has made him popular among students.

Pojman sporting his trademark bowtie and pocket protector. "Professors should have a bit of style," he said.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

After digesting Pojman’s style and colorful personality, it’s difficult to continue to dismiss the writhing slime-covered creature in the giant aquarium.

The three-toed amphiuma – with its three, small appendages that look less like toes and more like thick wriggling hairs – is colloquially called a congo eel or congo snake, but the one in Pojman’s office is affectionately named Chrissy. The amphiuma is the second largest salamander in the world and is nearly ubiquitous in the Baton Rouge area.

“There is a tremendous population density – about 1 pound for every 10 square feet,” said Pojman. “I caught 27 in a ditch across from Pennington [Biomedical Research Facility].”

Many people have never encountered an amphiuma because they are nocturnal and skittish around people – often burrowing quickly into the mud and out of sight. Typically the dominant species in their local food chain, the three-toed amphiuma preys on crawfish, frogs, snakes and other small amphibians.

When asked what spawned interest in these ditch-dwelling, slimy creatures, Pojman laughs and asks, “Well isn’t it obvious?”

Obvious if you were acquainted with a young Pojman who possessed an interest in herpetology while in grade school. Herpetology is the branch of zoology concerned with the study of amphibians and reptiles – but Pojman’s interest in the amphiuma developed while in Baton Rouge walking with his son.

“After the Hurricane [Katrina] we were living off of Essen [Lane],” explained Pojman. “One night my son and I were looking around a pond for frogs and turtles, and I saw something I thought was a mud snake, but it was a three-toed amphiuma.”

The interest grew, along with continued assistance from Pojman’s junior lab partner – his son. Through collaboration with researchers at Southeastern Louisiana University, the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and the LSU Department of Biological Sciences, a growing wealth of knowledge is being created about the three-toed amphiuma.

The original research centered around the amphiuma’s ability to recover without infection from a continued slew of bites and cuts received in its natural habitat. The amphiuma seemed similar to the alligator because about 10 percent of alligators will lose a limb fighting at some point in their lives, but they don’t die of infection.

“Alligators have this tremendous immune system to survive in that type of environment, so we began to wonder if these amphiumas had similar properties,” said Pojman.

 Current research shows the amphiuma doesn’t have an immune system to match the alligator, but an undaunted and eager Pojman began to look at the amphiuma’s distinguishing slime.

In the tradition of researchers, another hypothesis was proposed: perhaps the slime, or mucus, contained antibacterial properties that ward off infection. 

“So far it doesn’t seem as if the mucus is antibacterial in our studies with Meredith Blackwell in [the LSU Department of] Biology and from the Vet School, but we have found that some of the slime has antifungal properties,” said Pojman. Antifungal finds are much rarer, according to Pojman.

While research continues, Pojman gladly continues to search for amphiumas in ditches all around Baton Rouge. Pojman’s youthful interest in herpetology originated as a hobby and has become a pet project of sorts that actually lead to a pet – albeit a slimy one that enjoys crawfish as much as many Baton Rougeans.

Although his hobby has Pojman wallowing in the mud, his main area of research is rather out of this world. Research in miscible fluids – fluids that dissolve completely in each other – sometimes brings Pojman out of the reach of Earth’s gravitational field and far away from slime and pocket protector manufacturers. During the past decade, Pojman has participated in more than 800 parabola flights aboard NASA’s KC-135 aircraft, which provides a nearly weightless environment, while conducting his research on “Miscible Fluids In Microgravity.”

The axiom about mixing oil and water highlights the fact that the two do not combine well – making them immiscible fluids because they don’t mix due to surface tension. In microgravity, the two globules float and form a ball. 

“You would not expect this to happen with miscible fluids because there is no surface tension, but we predict there to be something like surface tension, or effective interfacial tension, but it’s masked by gravity on Earth,” said Pojman.

On the outskirts of Earth’s atmosphere, Pojman replaces oil with honey to test for the presence of effective interfacial tension. Honey and water are miscible fluids, and by injecting one into the other, Pojman is able to analyze the rate and degree in which the two mix without gravity aiding the process. Pojman had an experiment on the International Space Station several years ago that will be redone for longer times within a year.

Pojman’s experiments will continue aboard the New Shepard vehicle produced by Blue Origin LLC, a privately funded aerospace company set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

If pocket protectors, bow ties, ascots and space flight weren’t enough, Pojman also invented his own type of glue.

Pojman’s company – Pojman Polymer Products, or 3P LLC, http://3pllc.biz, is “dedicated to developing and marketing novel polymer products based on combining advances from nonlinear chemical dynamics to polymer science, with special emphasis on ‘cure-on demand’ applications.” His firms claims to be the “world leader in frontal approaches to wood, stone and dry wall repair as well as model rocket construction.” The adhesives are activated with a small amount of heat, which causes them harden rapidly far from the point of initial heating.

Not to pass on a good pun, Pojman notes that he is now “the 3PCEO, with apologies to George Lucas.”

His hobbies bring him to ditches all around Baton Rouge, his research finds him floating in microgravity, but Pojman’s daily life has him walking around LSU’s campus – adorned in a pocket protector and bow tie.

For more information on Pojman’s research and extensive collection of pocket protectors, visit www.pojman.com.