Gary Forrest, PhD '76

Pictured in May 2014, at the Maui Boy Scouts awards dinner is Hollis Atkinson and Dr. Gary Forrest. Hollis is Dr. Forrest’s first sponsored Eagle Scout.

Dr. Gary Forrest received his PhD in Chemistry in 1976. His thesis carried out under the advisement of Professor Richard C. Lord was titled: “Cyclic phosphates, dinucleotide coenzymes, and lipids: infra-red and Raman spectroscopic investigation of the relationship between molecular structure and biological function.”

Liz McGrath, Communications and Development Coordinator in the Department of Chemistry, contacted Dr. Forrest to learn about his experiences as a graduate student at MIT and the decisions behind his career path.

The following interview ensued.


Liz:  Where did you grow up?
Gary:  I was born in Buffalo, NY and grew up in nearby Kenmore, NY.

Liz: Were any members of your family scientists?

Gary: My father was an aeronautical engineer and worked on the design of the X-1. My mother was a kindergarten teacher.
Liz:  Why did you choose to do biological studies at Cornell for your undergraduate studies?

Gary:  When I enrolled at Cornell my intention was pre-dental. I had come from a high-powered high school and at Cornell was placed in sophomore chemistry and calculus classes along with Cornell’s first crop of 6 year BA/PhD students. Quickly, I discovered I liked chemistry lab work and biochemistry became my focus.

Liz: You went on to do an MS at Washington University —what was your area of study there?

Gary: At UW my MS was in chemistry —a three quarter, non-thesis degree. At the time I applied, I was in the first US draft lottery so my future was uncertain. At UW, I was a teaching assistant for freshman chemistry and really enjoyed it, especially since I had skipped freshman chemistry at Cornell. By the end of the MS program, I hadn’t found anyone I really wanted to work under for a PhD so instead I interviewed and got a job as a lab tech in pediatric research at UW Hospital. There I grew human cells in tissue culture—a skill I learned working summers at Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo.

Liz:  At what point in time did you know you would continue your studies to do a PhD in physical chemistry?  Were you familiar with your advisor Richard Lord’s research before coming to MIT—was he the motivator?

Gary:  My boss at UW Hospital went on sabbatical to England and during that time a post doc and I ran the lab. That experience was way more fun than being a lab tech!  So I looked into PhD programs. What I liked about MIT was the open program structure that emphasized research over course work. When I arrived at the Institute, I talked with different professors. Prof. Lord was heading to retirement, but he was interested in the type of biological problems I wanted to explore (membranes and cellular energy production) and I, in turn, was interested in spectroscopy—having enjoyed courses in the latter at UW.
Liz:  Would you describe the optics research you carried out in the Lord Lab?  

Gary:  Under Prof. Lord I used primarily Raman spectroscopy to explore how the shape of molecules in membranes and energy production related to their function. With our age difference, Prof Lord was like having a second father!  On his 65th birthday I made sure he got treated to lunch in Boston at Locke Ober, his favorite restaurant.

The second summer I was at MIT,  Lord ran out of funding so I interviewed with Philip Morris on campus and wound up working in their Richmond, VA, R&D center doing industrial IR spectroscopy. When I graduated the following year, they offered me a great job and over $200k in funding to set up a tunable diode laser lab to explore combustion products in cigarette smoke. So everything turned out great. During my last summer, I also got to work with Prof Lord. and Prof. Dana Mayo at Bowdoin College helping out with the Infra Red and Raman courses.

Liz: What were the most challenging aspects of grad school?  Did you enjoy student life at MIT?
Gary: I found graduate school life very isolating, mostly from a lack of on campus housing—I rented a place in Melrose. I only remember taking two courses—biological chemistry and welding. I am a pure lab/research person so lack of a social structure really didn’t bother me and I was in and out in 3 years. My goal was to advance my knowledge and skills and get back to work.
Liz:  Besides Lord, were there other chemistry professors that you held in high esteem for their teaching attributes and/or research?

Gary: Without question—Professor Khorana!  He was a Nobel Prize winner and had a brilliant research mind.

Liz:  Do you think the graduate student experience today is very different from the ‘70s?  For example, do you think students nowadays approach their science with a moral obligation to improve life on earth?
Gary: From my limited personal contact with current students, and reading newsletters from MIT, Cornell and UW, I don’t think so. I see the same desire to learn and push the frontiers of science that I saw in my time at MIT.
Liz:  Did you know when you graduated whether you would go into academia or industry?  What was the influencing factor in your decision?   

Gary:  No question—industry. I liked teaching at UW, but at heart I am an experimentalist who thrives on solving problems.

Liz: What career path did you take before you started your own San Francisco based company SensorPhysics in 1985?

Gary: After four years at Phillip Morris, I was selected for a sabbatical at Stanford University in Mechanical Engineering. My task was to demonstrate to students the signal processing techniques for tunable diode lasers that I had developed using a precursor of the first PCs—a DEC MINC (The Digital Equipment Modular Instrumentation Computer).

When I returned to Phillip Morris 8 months later,  I was interested in transferring to manufacturing but management wanted me to stay in the lab. So I spent a couple years working on business ideas of my own in the biochem area and eventually had to “get a real job.” I was hired by the Laser Analytics Division of Spectra Physics in Bedford, MA to sell tunable laser diode systems. Despite no experience in sales, I found it was easy because I understood how the equipment was going to be used. I managed to sell a whole year’s quota in just the first quarter. With success in sales comes “competition,” and I was pushed out after 18 months and quickly hired at Burleigh Instruments to manage sales, service, and marketing. With that company, I travelled nearly 50% of the time and had record sales, but never really liked managing people. My boss (who had my position previously) told me to improve my management skills—and I told him if he could do better, and have record sales like I had, he could have my job back!  That got me fired.

I interviewed for jobs for a month and finally concluded the best position was one that no one could fire me from. So I used my marketing contacts at Laser Focus World magazine to get a “job”—at $400 a month­—writing short articles about laser and optics companies.

Soon after, I packed up and moved to the San Francisco Bay area which, at that time, was the heart of the laser industry built around Spectra Physics and Coherent. Slowly, there,  I built up a consulting business, brokered
laser diodes for NASA from Fujitsu, and revitalized the annual Laser Focus Marketplace seminar. I also did FDA laser registration for companies large and small.

On one trip to China on behalf of a client, I found a laser power meter with the unusual combination of high sensitivity and good thermal stability. That detector became the basis for SensorPhysics. I expanded my test equipment business over the years to include spatial beam profiling using UV sensitive films for excimer lasers, and low cost video cards for lasers in general. Eventually I phased out my consulting and focused on SensorPhysics.
Liz:  What were your reasons for retiring to Hawaii?

Gary: By 2002 I had taken SensorPhysics as far as I thought I could so I sold the company to a former electronics designer who had done work for me. He continued the business in Colorado. I was living in Florida at the time as my mother had died two years previously and I was helping out my dad. However, I never really liked the humidity of Florida. Two years later, after a golfing vacation on Maui, I found the climate suited me and I was attracted to the rural areas on Maui. Ironically, Maui was also the site of one of my color center laser installations from my days at Burleigh Instruments.
Liz:  Now that you have retired, do you still stay involved with chemistry at any level?  Are you still involved with your company?

Gary: For several years I stayed in contact with SensorPhysics to make sure the transition for customers was smooth. And I stay current reading newsletters and technical reports—often laughing at how the press gets technology mixed up!   My chemistry today is limited to treating metal and wood projects, but this year I am setting up a little 445nm laser CNC engraving system. What I apply daily is the problem solving training I got at MIT and the subsequent years of lab and sales experience.
Liz:  I discovered in researching you that you produce the most beautiful one-of-a-kind clocks and lamps that combine koa and other hardwoods with stained glass, simple carvings oil penciled or 23k gold filled, and abalone or koa inserts. This work is obviously much more than a hobby. When did you discover this wonderful talent?  

Gary:  As I moved around the country from place to place, I always remodeled my houses, and of course I had my MIT welding course to fall back on.

My dad had been an apprentice boat builder before college and my uncle built and repaired wood boats so “sawdust was in my veins”. In caring for my dad in Hawaii, I needed a hobby I could work on an hour at a time.

Initially I developed a technique to print photographs on thin mulberry paper and that led to making frames that let the light shine from the back as well as the front of the picture—applied optics!  Pretty soon I had a complete wood shop. My items are sold locally at four Maui Hands stores. This year I am working with George Kahumoku —a local Grammy award winning guitar player—to fine tune little electronic music boxes I make out of bamboo and Hawaiian koa. My share of the proceeds will go to support local youth music programs.
Liz:  You have been a very loyal supporter of the chemistry department for many years. Why do you feel strongly about supporting the department?
Gary:  I feel strongly about supporting education in general. My dad and I set up endowed scholarships at Buffalo State (for elementary school teachers) and Indiana Institute of Technology (in engineering).

When I retired in 2002, I set up a small UROP summer scholarship fund to recognize Professor Lord in the hope that other of his students would contribute.

In 2014, I am funding engineering scholarships in my Dad’s memory for local Maui Boy Scouts pursuing or enrolled in engineering programs. The funding is for the duration of their studies. That will be expanded to include scholarships in science education at the Maui Boys and Girls Club. My goal is to show kids as they are growing up that science and engineering are worth the effort in school and non-need based financial help is available without a lot of paper work.

Liz McGrath
Senior Individual Giving Officer

Department of Chemistry
Room 18-388
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
Phone: 617-253-4080




Current Issue: February 2017