Courtesy of Charles Schmuttenmaer

On March 23 at 8 p.m., non-essential businesses were closed in Connecticut. As was also true for a litany of businesses and institutions, the research conducted by Charles Schmuttenmaer and his colleagues was “completely shut down.” Yet, Schmuttenmaer said that everyone in his group — students, post-docs and even himself — have found ways to stay “quite, quite productive.” 

Schmuttenmaer has been a Yale professor in chemistry since 1994. For the past 15 years, he has collaborated with three other professors — Gary Brudvig, Victor Batista and Robert Crabtree — focusing on solar fuel. Brudvig told the News that while they have no formal name, their quartet collaboration is sometimes known as the Yale Solar Group. Additionally, Schmuttenmaer leads The Schmuttenmaer Group, a research group at Yale which utilizes terahertz spectroscopy to investigate a variety of topics in renewable energy and artificial photosynthesis.  

The work of the Yale Solar Group is to research light-driven water oxidation and its role in photosynthesis in an effort to store and use the energy created in the process of photosynthesis. In a 2012 paper, the members of the Yale Solar Group and other researchers described light-driven water oxidation as “an essential step for conversion of sunlight into storable chemical fuels.” 

Brudvig said that the four collaborators bring different levels of expertise to their group: Batista focuses on theoretical chemistry, Crabtree on inorganic chemistry, Brudvig on natural photosynthesis and Schmuttenmaer on time-resolved terahertz spectroscopy. According to The Schmuttenmaer Group’s online page, time-resolved terahertz spectroscopy is “an optical pump/THz probe technique which is used to study systems in which a visible excitation initiates a change in far-infrared absorption properties on a sub-picosecond timescale.” 

Brudvig said that the overlapping interests of the four collaborators with different fields of expertise has resulted in a “really great group.”

Schmuttenmaer, who teaches the graduate course Molecules and Radiation II this semester, said that he and his students still meet remotely every Monday. During these meetings, Schmuttenmaer said that he allows the students to take initiative and tell him what they plan to do for the following week. Schmuttenmaer described this time out of the lab as good for conducting literature reviews and grant applications. 

Jacob Spies, one of Schmuttenmaer’s four graduate students this semester, spoke highly of Schmuttenmaer’s mentorship, emphasizing the intellectual freedom that Schmuttenmaer allows for his students. He added that Schmuttenmaer sees his students as colleagues, a characteristic Spies particularly appreciates. 

“I think that this ‘grounded’ view on the relationship he has with his students makes him especially nice to work with,” Spies said. “Because of this, I do feel that I can talk with Charlie about more than just my research and work here at Yale, and his openness to discussion about any aspect of life is something that I value.” 

Spies said that Schmuttenmaer’s welcoming nature was the reason he decided to enroll at Yale over other graduate school programs. 

While Schmuttenmaer is not teaching any undergraduate courses — which recently switched to a universal pass/fail grading system after weeks of heated debate — he emphasized the need for educators to be flexible with their students. 

“I think that we should all be accommodating and understanding, because people have very different situations across the country, wherever they may happen to be,” Schmuttenmaer said. Yet, he did underscore the need for an attempt at normalcy, with a high standard of academic instruction still paramount.

Schmuttenmaer is currently living in his New Haven home. He has a room that he has claimed to be his new office. Describing himself as an “ordinary guy,” trying to deal with social distancing “the best way I can,” he wishes he could get outside a bit more — a common sentiment in the age of social distancing. 

He said that not much has changed in his professional life, other than his new office at home and the transition to online platforms like Zoom. However, Schmuttenmaer did describe life outside of work as “depressing.”

“In the evening, when I listen to the news, everything is about COVID-19,” Schmuttenmaer said. “And it really makes me sad. Globally, nationally, and locally, it is just all so depressing.”

Routine, however, remains important for Schmuttenmaer, who still puts on a button-down, sweater and pants before walking to his home office every morning (“Otherwise you could just sit here in sweatpants and a t-shirt!” Schmuttenmaer said). 

Many public health officials have begun to warn that a premature loosening of economic shutdown and social distancing measures will result in a second surge of coronavirus cases. Commenting on the effects of COVID-19, Schmuttenmaer said his greatest concern was societal complacency as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases begins to decrease. 

“Just because you’re coming down the peak doesn’t mean that it was any safer than one month ago,” he said.

Schmuttenmaer added that, as a result, he has cancelled all of his travel through August. 

When Schmuttenmaer was asked how history would interpret the pandemic, he spent a minute trying to frame the global response in a positive light. However, he said, instead, that the response to the pandemic is emblematic of the polarization that currently characterizes our nation.  

“In our polarized country, the response to it has been completely polarized,” Schmuttenmaer said. “It’s been astounding how these people can deny what is going on.”

Despite this, Schmuttenmaer has found silver linings throughout the last month. He finds himself reading more often and lauded the Yale administration for the measures they have taken to support the Yale community. 

In the front end of our conversation, Schmuttenmaer asked if I had taken a chemistry course at Yale. I explained that while I needed one more science course, the thought of general chemistry hadn’t yet (or ever) crossed my mind. On later thought, however, if Professor Schmuttenmaer is teaching a undergraduate course next year, I may just have to shop it.

Nick Tabio | nick.tabio@yale.edu

This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.