No one could ever accuse Peter Kissinger '66 of having a hard time making up his mind. Kissinger has been developing scientific machines for more than thirty years-all that's changed is the technology and the price tag.
As a precocious sixteen-year-old at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, Kissinger used $30, some borrowed equipment, and guidance from a father interested in electronics and a neighbor interested in organic chemistry to produce a simple polarograph for a science fair project.
Today, as a professor of chemistry at Purdue University and the founder and president of Bioanalytical Systems, Kissinger helps design some of the world's most advanced analytical chemistry instruments.
Founded in 1974, Bioanalytical Systems has 150 employees in Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Japan, and Europe.
“Being involved in a relatively small academic community, I had the opportunity to travel and develop a sense of the kinds of chemical measurement problems scientists were having,” Kissinger says, explaining why he formed Bioanalytical Systems. “Neuroscientists in particular needed better instruments.”
Kissinger knew what every good scientist knows-better instruments mean better science.
“What you find is that scientific progress and the development of new technology are linked,” Kissinger says. “Someone will make a new discovery, and that sparks the curiosity of another scientist who wants to take it one step further. But the next level requires new technology. So we invent the new technology, which leads to a new discovery, and then more technology is needed to bring the science one step further. It's all very cyclical.”
Bioanalytical Systems may sound like a distant, lab-laden land to the person who has never heard of instruments like chromatographs and mass spectrometers. Nevertheless, these devices affect us even as we walk down the aisles of a supermarket. Without analytical instruments, we wouldn't have package labels that tell us which vitamins and how much fat those blueberry muffins really have.
We also might not be able to detect small quantities (down to the level of one part per billion) of dangerous chemicals that can contaminate our water or understand how pesticides can affect the fruit we eat.
If a pharmaceutical company wants to market a new type of medication, Bioanalytical Systems can help figure out if a pill, capsule, or liquid form will best serve the therapeutic objective. And the company does contract work with the major pharmaceutical companies to support clinical trials.
Kissinger says that as the years pass, he is more interested in using his company's equipment to study the chemistry of disease-what he calls “chemical measurements to support health care research.” In recent years, Kissinger's company has developed instruments that will measure biochemical changes in diseases that range from Alzheimer's to manic-depression.
“Aging is something I get more interested in every year,” Kissinger says. “But it's also a major concern for the country and the health care world. We've been able to keep people alive
longer, so keeping the elderly healthy has become a new challenge. They're getting a well-deserved break from earning income, but the country is spending more on their health care every year. There's a lot of incentive for us to find solutions to the diseases affecting them.”
When Kissinger began his career as chemist during the 1960s, he and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina and the University of Kansas could figure out if a chemical was present in brain tissue but could not easily find the chemical's specific location.
Today, scientists can analyze neurotransmitters in living tissue or study a pin-prick's worth of blood from a premature infant. Not only that, says Kissinger, the machines that perform such tasks require personnel with less training, which in turn lowers the overall cost.
“Back in the 1950s and 1960s, science received a lot more positive attention,” he says. “People were excited about the Mercury astronauts and even the invention of the Teflon-coated pan.”
Then came the Vietnam War and the 1970s, when the public learned about environmental problems and associated them with chemical companies that were producing Napalm and Agent Orange. The industry has been trying to shake its poor image ever since.
“Scientists have to do a better job of educating the general public,” Kissinger insists. “If we don't, people don't truly understand the real problems we're facing, and that just results in bad legislation.”
Kissinger, who has published more than 175 scientific papers, delivered more than 300 lectures, and written several books, doesn't plan to stop spreading the word about the virtues of science and chemistry anytime soon.
“I'm still running around like a mad person, much like I did at Union,” he says with a laugh. “It's fun to direct research, teach, and sell products all in one day.”