This section collects the essays from Reflections from the Frontiers (Explorations for the Future: Gordon Research Conferences 1931-2006), GRC's 75th anniversary commemorative publication.

Nancy Ryan Gray
Nancy Ryan Gray
Gordon Research Conferences
Everyone Has a GRC Story

There is the GRC story itself, the history of a unique organization that grew from humble beginnings and ultimately set the standard of excellence against which other conferences are compared. There is the story of GRC’s founder, Neil Elbridge Gordon, and his creation of a simple venue, free from distraction, in which he and his colleagues could discuss and debate the frontiers of scientific research. There are the stories of formalizing a framework for supporting the conferences; the visionary leadership provided by GRC’s governance and Neil Gordon’s successors (my predecessors); and the remarkable growth of the conferences in scientific breadth, number, and geographic distribution. But most significant are the stories of those who have made GRC the enduring organization it has become. These are the stories of the conferees themselves: the chairs, vice chairs, discussion leaders, and speakers; the first-time attendees and longtime loyalists; the scientifically famous; and those unforgettable conferees (and you know who you are) who have become infamous.

I have always been a sucker for a good story. As a result this commemorative publication was conceived as a means to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of GRC by capturing a small, but significant, subset of GRC stories. The contributors were asked to reflect on how their GRC experiences affected both their careers and their specific scientific disciplines. What could they tell us about how GRC pioneered new areas of research, started important collaborations, launched journals and professional societies, or contributed to breakthrough technology and innovations? Why did they keep coming back? What is it about the GRC experience that makes it unique?

My GRC story begins in the summer of 1983 when I was a graduate student at Penn State. My adviser, noted organic geochemist Peter H. Given, informed me that he was sending me to New Hampshire for a week to attend the Analytical Pyrolysis Gordon Conference. The conference was chaired by Fred Shafizadeh of the University of Montana, who was considered the world’s leading expert on the pyrolysis of wood. In preparation for the conference I had assembled a large stack of publications related to the field. These articles chronicled the debates over pyrolysis mechanisms and theory, as well as the utility of pyrolysis for characterizing synthetic polymers and large biopolymers. Although I expected the conference program to address these subjects, I was speechless to find myself sharing dinner with the primary authors on the mastheads. These were the gods of the discipline (Henk Meuzelaar, Hans-Rolf Schulten, Piet Kistemaker, Stan Israel, Bob Lattimer, and Kent Voorhees), and they were asking me about my thesis research and to please pass the salt.

During the poster session one evening I met two Dutch scientists (Jaap Boon, of the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics, and Jan de Leeuw, of Delft University of Technology) presenting results from their analysis of peat samples from the Netherlands. Since I was studying peat samples from the United States, I spent most of the evening asking questions about using pyrolysis to study the recalcitrant portion of sedimentary organic matter. Two weeks later, literally hip deep in the swamps of the Florida Everglades gathering additional peat cores, I received a phone call from my thesis adviser. Dr. Given had been visited by the two Dutch scientists prior to their return to the Netherlands. The three of them collectively agreed to send me to Amsterdam where I would complete the analytical portion of my thesis research using state-of-the-art equipment at the FOM Institute. Going to New Hampshire for a week landed me in Europe for a year.

I continued to use analytical pyrolysis in my research after completing my Ph.D. and accepting a position at Exxon Production Research Company in Houston. I became a “regular” at the Analytical Pyrolysis GRC and was honored to be invited as a speaker for the 1989 and 1991 meetings. My career path took an unexpected turn in March 1989, however, when a big ship of Exxon’s hit a big rock in Alaska (otherwise known as the Exxon-Valdez disaster). I transferred from fundamental research in oil exploration to a new environmental research group working on oil production. By 1993, owing to declining attendance, the Analytical Pyrolysis Gordon Conference was canceled.

In 1994 I left Exxon and my research career to accept a position with the American Chemical Society (ACS). Although I missed research, I enjoyed working for an organization dedicated to serving the chemical community, and I continued to see many of my GRC buddies at ACS meetings. In 2003, while writing a business plan for a new series of ACS conferences, I stumbled across the announcement that a new director was being sought to head GRC. It was an opportunity to write an amazing ending to my GRC story - and I’m a sucker for a good story.

I am extremely honored to serve as only the fifth GRC director in seventy-five years and to continue the tradition of excellence that makes the Gordon Research Conferences so successful. When asked what I ad-mire so much about GRC, I reply, “It’s the story.” It’s the story of an amazing organization conceived, built, and maintained by scientists, and the story of an organization that has done the same thing for three-quarters of a century and has done it exceedingly well. It is a fascinating story. It is a story that, as a scientist, makes me proud. And it is a story that continues to unfold.