Frank Fronczek (BS LSU ’70, PhD Cal Tech '75)
Director, X-Ray Crystallography Laboratory
Department of Chemistry, LSU
Frank Fronczek grew up in the piney woods of southwest Louisiana. His mother was an elementary school teacher, who occasionally did substitute teaching, but mostly had her hands full with three boys. Fronczek Senior had a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and worked in the chemical industry around Lake Charles. Reflecting on his scientific influences, Franks says, “I blame it mostly on my dad. He felt strongly that his sons should develop a curiosity about, and an understanding of, the natural world. He would bring home magnets, wires, batteries, magnifying lenses, etc. for us to play with. We had a nice microscope to examine things too small to see otherwise, and a telescope. We spent a lot of time at the library and visited museums and planetariums when we traveled.” During his middle school years, he recalls finding a book at the library that contained recipes for growing crystals … alums, tartrates and some wonderfully colorful metal salts. Looking back with amusement, he says, “My mom didn’t seem to mind that I had solutions of these things in her refrigerator along with the food.” And hence was born the crystallographer.
Frank attended Westlake High School, across the river from Lake Charles. As a teenager, he was a paperboy, delivering newspapers on his bike, and in the summer he was a counselor at a boy scout camp. He attended LSU, where he learned to bleed purple and gold. As a college student, he spent summers working in the local petrochemical plants, proving himself in the first couple of years with manual labor: moving coke dust with a shovel and bucket and later as a mechanic’s assistant. During his last two summers, he progressed to working in an air-conditioned lab, mostly engaged in the analysis of sulfur impurities in petrochemicals. Fronczek graduated with a BS in Chemistry in 1970.
As an undergraduate chemistry major, Frank indicates that he “made lifelong friends, including faculty and other chemistry majors, including my wife, Rosalind, whom I met in a chemistry class.” Frank and Roz weathered the storm of sophomore organic chemistry together with Bill Pryor and P-Chem with Hulen Williams. He summed up his advice to current chemistry majors: “If you can find a career doing something you love in a place you want to be, everything else will take care of itself. But a good sense of humor helps, too.
Frank spent his graduate and postdoctoral years in California. He received his PhD at Caltech, with Dick Marsh and Bill Schaefer. “Marsh was one of the best crystallographers ever, having learned from Linus Pauling as a postdoc. So, Pauling is in four different places in my scientific family tree, and I had the pleasure of interacting with him a few times while at CIT.” The topic of Frank’s dissertation was dioxygen bonding to transition metals; this was before the oxygen bonding mode in myoglobin and hemoglobin was known.
Following graduate school, Fronczek was a postdoc at the University of California at Berkeley in the laboratory of Ken Raymond. Of his foray into actinide organometallic chemistry, he says “it was radioactive and pyrophoric, and the vacuum line wasn’t really my cup of tea.” He did continue to perform crystallography and synthesized a uranium carborane that was the first to be characterized structurally. Of this time, he says, “Interacting with Glenn Seaborg was a plus.”
In 1976, Fronczek returned to his alma mater as a Visiting Assistant Professor. His duties were predominantly teaching freshman chemistry. A turning point in his career, and the research capabilities of the Department, came in 1979 when a group of faculty - Steve Watkins, Ken Houk, Klaus Fischer, Rich Gandour and George Newkome – worked together to write a successful NSF instrumentation proposal that led to the creation of the X-ray lab. Frank’s position became research-focused and permanent. He has analyzed crystalline samples for almost 50 research groups at LSU, and beyond, leading to more than 1000 publications. Fronczek says, “It is great fun. Interacting with students and assisting them with their research is a very satisfying part of my work.” He continues, today, as the Director of the X-Ray Facility. He is active in the American Crystallographic Association (ACA) and was named a Fellow in 2016.
Profile contributed by Carol M. Taylor