As a boy in Forest Hills, N.Y., Eric Block set up a basement laboratory where he performed experiments that produced “awful smells and big flashes.” Today, his lab at UAlbany is quieter and less combustible – but still aromatic – as he researches compounds of the elements sulfur and selenium, both contained in garlic, onions and other genus Allium plants, which have applications in nanotechnology and drug research.
Block, recently named UAlbany’s first Carla Rizzo Delray Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, acknowledges that, if done today, his boyhood experiments could probably “get me into trouble with the law.” But his youthful research, inspired by his “wonderful” schoolteachers and later by professors at New York City’s Queens College and at Harvard, paved the way for a highly successful career.
After teaching for 14 years at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, Block relocated to the Capital Region for a post, including a six-year stint as chair, in UAlbany’s Department of Chemistry. His research focuses on “some very exciting initiatives in cancer prevention and treatment using compounds of sulfur and selenium. I’m also working in the field of agriculture to develop environmentally benign biocides and pesticides that can be used to treat crops or even animals, such as poultry, being raised in situations where they are prone to certain diseases. I’d like to discover ways to treat them that don’t pollute the environment with toxic substances. I am also delighted to collaborate with my colleagues in UAlbany’s College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering (CNSE) on projects involving sulfur chemistry.” Block is currently Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Block never met Delray, a New York State College for Teachers graduate and retired GE researcher who passed away in 2000, leaving the University an estate that totaled more than $1 million and funded the endowment that supports the professorship. However, he has read about her, and he hopes the professorship will honor Delray and “encourage me to continue my teaching and research.”
Former students Zhixing Shan, Ph.D. ’03, and Jin Jin, Ph.D. ’06, now postdoctoral researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, are grateful to Block for his professional and personal guidance. Shan, who plans to work for a pharmaceutical company as a synthetic organic chemist, appreciated Block’s “excellent training lab” and his concern about “his students’ career planning and our everyday lives.”
Block’s “guidance, encouragement and support, both in the laboratory and in life,” were especially important to Jin. “His rigorous scientific approach, and his fearless attitude toward difficulties, helped me build self-confidence in the field, which is the most important thing in my research work, the synthesis of organic molecules with some bioactivities,” she adds.