Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics
Girl Geeks/My Story
Greenblatt, Martha
Martha's Story
Greenblatt, Martha
Professor II CY

Phone: 732-445-3277

Ph.D., Polytechnic Institute, 1967

Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, School of Arts and Sciences, New Brunswick; Rutgers

Areas of Interest: Chemical & Molecular Biology, Physical and Solid-State Chemistry.
I was born during WWII in the city of Debrecen, in Hungary, near the Russian border. In 1944, when I was 3 years old, Germany occupied Hungary and Hitler’s lieutenants had the task to transport all the Jews of Hungary to the death camps. Between June of 1944 and April 1945, 400,000 – 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis. My family survived by a miracle – my father, who was in a Nazi labor camp, escaped. My mother with two small children, my brother 6 months old and myself, were loaded into a cattle car; the train’s destination was Auschwitz, the infamous extermination camp. However, halfway there, for reasons unknown, the train changed direction (could be that the rails were bombed already, as the Russians were moving west, or that we were “bartered” for some reason by the Nazis-we may never know…).

We survived the rest of the war in Vienna, in a Concentration Camp. Vienna was under siege by the Russians, and near the end of the war the SS ordered, at gunpoint, the whole camp out on the highway on a death march toward Germany. My mother turned off at an opportune moment and escaped with me and my brother. She hid in the countryside, with the help of some good Samaritans. After the liberation of Austria by the Soviet Army, she walked back to Hungary and found my father waiting for us in the apartment, where we lived before the Nazis cast us out.

After the war Hungary was occupied by the Soviets, and it became a communist satellite country. The “iron curtain” soon went up, and it was impossible to leave. My family survived Hitler, and now we had the “pleasure” of surviving Stalin’s terror. We lived under the constant threat of my father’s imprisonment, or a worse fate. There was a shortage of foods, even bread. I have often stood on long lines for essential foods. I went to elementary school in Debrecen from 1947 to 1955. My education was excellent and I have wonderful memories of my school days. I memorized the great Hungarian poems, some of which I can still recite. I learned wondrous things about the world; I still remember the description of Niagra Falls (you could hear its thunder from miles…) and the Amazon River (it is immense, like the sea..) by my outstanding Geography teacher. I was also involved in enjoyable sport activities as a member of the swim team; summers were great fun either in summer camp, or at home with many friends.

I entered the best Gymnasium in Debrecen in 1955; it was a Teachers Training Institute-with outstanding teachers. The level of gymnasium education in Hungary is more similar to College in the US, than that of high school. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I only attended Gymnasium for a year and ~ one month. In October 1956, the Hungarians rose against the Soviet occupation and during the chaos of the revolution, the
Greenblatt, Martha
Dr. Greenblatt with her research group at RU, circa 2007.
“iron curtain” became porous, and many people left. My parents were afraid to leave, as there were rumors of shootings at the border. I left with two friends (I was not quite 16 at this time) in early December of 1956, and arrived in Vienna (a second time, now as a refugee). My mother had two sisters in NYC and I wanted to go to the US. I signed up at the US Embassy in Vienna, and after the appropriate screening, I was on a US troop carrier with several hundred other refugees sailing from Bremenhaven, Germany to NYC. After we were tossed around in the Atlantic as if in a toy boat we arrived, in about ten days, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My arrival in NY harbor was memorable. - I was greeted by the Statue of Liberty, and some of those skyscrapers, were really in the clouds as it was a rainy January 16th in 1957.

I lived with my relatives until my family arrived in March of that year. I was immediately enrolled in High School (New Utricht High, Brooklyn, NY)-and started to learn English; it was a most traumatic transition, but I knew that there was no return, so I focused on my future. It took about a year until I understood English, but I really became fluent in communication after about two years here. By then I was in Brooklyn College in the fall 1958, and the worst of immigrations nightmares were behind me. I was married at 18 and ½, a year after I entered College, in the summer of 1959. I always wanted to be a medical doctor (probably my mother’s dream), and I always liked and did well in the sciences, so I majored in Chemistry at Brooklyn College. As far as I could tell, the Chemistry Department at Brooklyn College was excellent. Moreover, I had outstanding classes in the liberal arts and came away with a well-rounded broad education and enriching cultural and social experiences in general.

In January 1962 I received a BSc (cum laude) in Chemistry from Brooklyn College and I went to work for the Chicklet Chewing Gum Company in Long Island City as a chemist. It did not take long for me to discover that the job was uninspiring; I was totally bored. I frantically applied to graduate school, and the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn seemed to have a good chemistry department. I chose it partly for its location near home. Indeed, it was a very good school in the early sixties, when I was there; it had probably the best polymer institute in the land, and the crystallography lab was also highly rated. I took the famous Introduction to Polymer from Prof. Herman Marks; Rudy Marcus was my chemical physics professor, who later received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work he did at Poly in those years. I ended up doing my PhD research in a solid state chemistry lab by serendipity; as a TA, I became friendly with one of the graduate students from Prof. Ephraim Bank’s lab., and Ed Kostiner suggested I try it and see if I would like it. Prof. Banks left on a Sabbatical to Israel soon after I joined the lab. My PhD project to grow single crystals of an oxide material with Cr(V) (a unique oxidation state of chromium metal) was successful by beginner’s luck, and Banks suggested (via mail) that I go to Prof. Post’s X-ray lab., and learn how to determine the structure of my compound. I moved into the X-ray lab., and I never left while I was a student at Poly. I enjoyed the research on crystal structure analysis, I liked the beautiful colorful crystals I grew in my solid-state projects, and I had great graduate student mates. I received a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry in January 1967; I was 26.

I gave birth to a baby girl, Julie, in Sept. 1965. By that time, I was finished with most of the experimental work. I stayed at home for a few weeks, then working on the weekends and part-time during the week to fill in the experimental holes in my thesis. I had a reliable babysitter and my husband was very supportive and helped with childcare as well as household chores.

In 1967 spring I worked as a Post-doc at NYU in a biophysics department. It was extremely hard to find an appropriate academic position and I had a baby; I did not want an industrial position just then. I was offered a temporary position to teach and do research at Poly as an Asst. Prof. The position was not tenure line, and I had little hope of obtaining permanence in a place where my research was too close to that of my mentor. I stayed at Poly until 1972 in this temporary teaching/research position. In 1970 I gave birth to my second child a boy, Jonathan. My husband had a business in NY, my parents lived in Brooklyn; I was not thinking of relocating, and the position at Poly was convenient. It allowed me to continue my research, but in a less stressful manner than if I had to fight for tenure, with two young children. However, eventually I wanted a more permanent job, and I saw that Poly was hopeless. I applied for a Visiting Professorship at the Weizmann Institute and obtained a Fellowship in the Electronics/Physics Department. I spent a glorious year in 1972/73 in Rehovot, one of the best years of my life. The science was great, the infrastructure was excellent, I learned a great deal and did first-rate research on so-called magnetoelectric materials. Childcare was easy and excellent in Israel, so I could leave my children and work with minimum stress.

I returned to the Polytechnic in 1973 for one more year, and looked intensely for a tenure-track academic appointment in a research university. I obtained the position in Rutgers University starting in July, 1974. By now both of my children were in school all day (Julie in 3rd grade, and Jonathan in kinder-garden). My initial position at RU was in University College, Chemistry Department; this unit of RU is the evening school; I was teaching three courses per semester at night, and trying to do research during the day, without any start-up funds, without any graduate students, and no support from anyone. It was really unbearable. I was soon looking for a way out of the hell I had found myself in, but these were the seventies, and an appropriate job was extremely hard to find in industry, and impossible to do so in academia. At the end, not able to find a better position, I remained at RU, and my situation was improved every year. I received an NSF grant, was beginning to do some new and unique research in the so-called bronze area, and I received tenure in 1979.

In 1980-81 I made another excellent decision and went on Sabbatical to Bell Labs., in Murray Hill; it was only a 45-minute drive from my house. I broadened my research interests and skills in a new field of ionically conducting materials; these are needed for all electrochemical devices including batteries, sensors, and fuel cells. I learned how to do science that belonged in the journal Science or Nature (the highest rated scientific journals). I made excellent professional contacts and supportive friends.

When I came back to Rutgers in 1981, it was hard to get used to the place. Rutgers had undergone a major reorganization that resulted in a unified chemistry department (out of the three scattered at various Colleges and campuses throughout New Brunswick). The intended and achieved effect of the reorganization was a much stronger research chemistry department, and now is among the top 10 chemistry departments in its ability to attract federal research funds. From my experience at Bell Labs, I now knew how to build a first-rate solid-state chemistry lab; and my career took off. In 2003 I received the American Chemical Society’s Garvan-Olin Medal – a national award given yearly to an outstanding woman chemist. The following year I became Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry at RU. I continue to be passionately involved in teaching, research and all the professional activities of my field.

Foremost and first, it was my mother, Clara Fulop Katz who instilled in me a love of knowledge and a desire to succeed as an independent woman - she inspired me, by example, and by telling me (through her experience) that “knowledge is the only thing they can’t take away from you”. She died in 2000 at age 87, but her memory, her example and advice will be with me while I live. I am indebted to my husband, Martin who was an understanding and supportive mate and without whom I could not have accomplished half of it. I have also had many outstanding and inspiring teachers along the way, exceptional students and supportive program directors at the funding agencies.
Transcribed from professional presentation by Christina Leshko.