Montana State University

Spring 2015

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Mountains and Minds

Elemental bond May 12, 2015 by Mike Lynch • Published 05/12/15

Reed Howald
Reed Howald. Photo by Kelly Gorham

When alumnus Harlan Byker visited Montana State University and Bozeman last fall, he made certain to make the time to fish the Jefferson River with his former teacher and mentor, Reed Howald, continuing a strong and unlikely friendship built on their shared passions for science, fishing, and undergraduate and graduate research at MSU.

It’s a friendship that spans nearly four decades, stretching back to Byker’s days as a graduate student at MSU in the late 1970s. That was when Byker first asked to work with Howald to round out his doctoral dissertation.

“Reed was this brilliant and eccentric person, and he intrigued me,” Byker said, recalling that his decision to approach Howald laid the groundwork for his life’s work as a researcher, inventor
and entrepreneur.

Byker said later in his career he realized that he could hold his own with graduates of such institutions as CalTech, University of California, Berkeley or Stanford “because of the confidence I got from working with Reed.”

The impact of Howald, as well as MSU professors Dick Geer and Pat Callis, and his MSU education, inspired Byker to establish the Geer-Howald-Callis Undergraduate Research Grant in 1990, a scholarship that has since helped more than 20 students pursue cutting-edge research at MSU.

Howald, a professor emeritus of chemistry who, at 84, still keeps a space in MSU’s Gaines Hall, did not expect that his mentorship would turn into a long-term relationship after Byker completed his doctorate.

Then, in the early 1980s, Byker began making regular trips back to Bozeman to fish, reaching out to Howald again. The two discovered their mutual love of fishing. The two have since fished together through the intervening decades, across southwest Montana and on the rivers near Byker’s home in Michigan.

Despite their abiding love for fishing, the two at first took a very different approach to the sport.

“Harlan was a worm fisherman,” Howald said, recalling those early years. “When he took me on the Madison, I would be fishing flies, and he would be fishing bait. I did not expect that he would become a fly fisherman, but I would show him what it took.”

Howald took Byker fishing along Rocky Creek, near the home Howald shares with his wife, Elaine.
Howald said the reason that stream is so special is “because it has a lot of rainbows in the six-to-nine-inch range—not smart, but very hungry,” making it the perfect place to introduce Byker to fly fishing.

Fly fishing wasn’t the only arena where Byker would reach back for advice from his old mentor. Having amassed nearly 50 patents, including the invention of the auto-dimming rearview mirror, Byker set out to start a new company, Pleotint, where he focused on designing windows that would dim automatically in strong sunlight.

That was when Byker reached out to Howald to troubleshoot the limits of the materials with which he was experimenting. “It occurred to me that I had taken a class from Reed [in inorganic chemistry] and I thought ‘You know what, Reed would have information on that.”

“There are three amazing things about Harlan,” Howald said about the consulting he performed with him.

“First, he is brilliant. Second, he hires smart people to work for him. And third, he is willing to shift the emphasis of his research when he needs to.”

That shift in emphasis resulted in the breakthrough Byker’s fledgling company needed. Moving from electrochromic to thermochromic systems required a different way of thinking. It was Howald who recommended Byker shift his attention from organic to inorganic compounds, significantly advancing the effectiveness of the window technology.

As their friendship evolved, both men would prove to serve as a strong influence in the other’s life. Inspired by the example of Byker’s scholarship honoring him, Howald returned the honor when he and his wife chose to create the Harlan Byker Graduate Research Assistantship in recognition of one of Howald’s most inspiring students.

“My vision was something like the Byker undergraduate research scholarship (but for graduate students),” Howald said. “Graduate research in productive fields like chemistry develops really important information for a graduate student who is working three to five years on a project.”

This past fall, Byker and Howald reunited again, only this time on MSU’s campus. There they visited with the curators of the MSU Library’s Trout and Salmonid Collection, and Howald spoke about his family’s long history with fly fishing.

It happens that Howald’s father, a chemist by training, had invented the “Howald process,” born out of the need to repair the bamboo rods Howald and his sister had absently stepped on as children. Licensed to manufacturers, the process was at the heart of the first generation of fiberglass fishing rods.

“When I was a kid, I would look in the Cabela’s catalog and read about the rods made by the Howald process,” Byker said.

Knowing Howald has always been game for jumping into a raft or boat, Byker invited him fishing on the Jefferson that same weekend. Returning to the water, they marveled together at the rare cutthroat Howald caught, and fished, not as student and teacher, but as old friends. ■