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'Essential oils are very relevant to everyday life' -- IU Southeast faculty member teaches chemistry through essential oils

Dec. 11, 2013

Robert Pappas’ instrumentation room on the second floor of Indiana University Southeast’s Physical Science building looks much like any other laboratory -- but it certainly doesn’t smell like one.

Lavender, peppermint and eucalyptus mingle in the air as Pappas completes analytical testing for the essential oil and fragrance industry and individuals in the field. As a chemist, Pappas breaks down what is in each oil and how it compares to others.

Robert Pappas

Robert Pappas, who recently returned to IU Southeast to teach chemistry, got his start at the institution as a business student until he found his true passion was chemistry. | Photo By Graham Gohmann

His work has made Pappas a much-sought-after consultant for companies and individuals all over the world because the information he provides helps with quality assurance and with learning how an essential oil might be useful.

Pappas has worked with distillers in Croatia who hope to get their essential oil business off the ground and assisted distillers in Hawaii who hope to produce a sandalwood oil that in the past has only been available in India and Indonesia. As a teacher, he helps aromatherapists and other practitioners who use essential oils.

“There are so many uses for these oils and just about everyone is using them, whether they are aware of it or not,” Pappas said. “Essential oils are very relevant to everyday life, and there’s a growing interest among the general public in understanding the oils.”

Crafting a career in chemistry

His profession is quite different from what he imagined as an IU Southeast business freshman in 1985.

Through a bridge to college program, Pappas had taken an IU Southeast business administration class while he was still a senior at Providence High School in Clarksville, Ind.

“I was the top student in that class and got a scholarship to IU Southeast,” Pappas said. “I had taken one chemistry class in high school and hated it, so I had no idea I’d ever dream of being a chemist.”

But by the time Pappas was a college sophomore, his plans of becoming an accountant just didn’t interest him anymore, he said. During his sophomore year, Pappas was enrolled in a pre-med chemistry class to fulfill a science requirement.

His professor was W. Brian Hill, who, among other things, had been the first science faculty member hired at the campus in 1958 and had pushed for the creation of the IU Southeast chemistry degree in 1971.

Hill, who passed away in March, inspired Pappas’ love of chemistry. Hill’s “old-school” approach to the discipline and his ability to create a sense of competition in the class appealed to Pappas.

“Dr. Hill was a legend,” Pappas said. “He gave me inspiration and motivation. He told me I was wasting my talent as a business major, and he recruited me to be his lab assistant.”

Pappas then studied under Ben Nassim, the former dean of the School of Natural Sciences, who further inspired Pappas’ interest in organic chemistry.

While Pappas was completing his undergraduate work at IU Southeast, he was spending summers in a research program at the University of Tennessee. When he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1990, Pappas began pursuing his Ph.D. in chemistry in Knoxville.

Finishing his graduate work in 1995, Pappas was well-versed in everything from quantum mechanics to organic synthesis.

“But I still hadn’t even heard of essential oils,” he said.

Intro to essential oils

After graduate school, Pappas and his wife, Buffi, moved back to Indiana to be close to family. He began teaching six different chemistry and math courses to students at Christian Academy during the day, and chemistry to nursing and medical students at IU Southeast and the University of Louisville at night.

In search of a change, Pappas took a job as the senior chemist and perfumer at The Lebermuth Co. in the South Bend area.

Lebermuth is a family-run wholesale fragrance manufacturing company that has been in business since 1908.

“That was my big introduction to essential oils,” Pappas said. “I spent two years getting exposed to everything about the industry and what it takes to control for quality.”

Rob Brown, president of The Lebermuth Co., said he worked closely with Pappas during those two years.

“Dr. Pappas is an expert in understanding, qualifying and managing the chemistry of plants that produce essential oils and other aromatic extractions,” Brown said.

He said Pappas understands what makes one oil better than another, and how to standardize and blend materials to achieve a consistent product for consumers.

Pappas assisted with the formulation of about 2,000 fragrances while working at The Lebermuth Co., he said.

His exposure to essential oils while with the company changed the focus of his career. He also re-entered the academic world during that same time, teaching a class titled “Chemistry of Essential Oils” in 1997 at IU South Bend.

“That class was a big deal because it was the very first time anyone had taught class specifically about essential oils in the country,” Pappas said. “It was pretty exciting.”

'The go-to person for chemical analysis'

In 1998, he left The Lebermuth Co. to start his own consulting business, analyzing oil samples using a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, or GC-MS. It’s a method also used in drug detection, fire investigations and environmental analysis. He also continued to teach.

Robert Pappas

Pappas recently returned to IU Southeast to teach chemistry, and established the Essential Oil University, an online education reference and research site. | PHOTO BY GRAHAM GOHMANN

His experiences at Lebermuth and teaching at IU South Bend introduced Pappas to practitioners like Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, the founder and director of the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy in Tampa, Fla.

Sheppard-Hanger said she’s both studied and taught with Pappas in Indiana and in Florida, calling him the “champion” of those who value high-quality essential oils.

“He’s the go-to person for chemical analysis, and he’s always open to answering any questions about essential oils, whether you are actually on the industry side or a student,” she said.

Sheppard-Hanger has sent him samples from new oils she’s found, even one that came from a mysterious tree in her neighborhood.

“If I find something new, he can tell me what’s in it right away,” she said.

Pappas and his family, including his four children, moved back to the Floyds Knobs area after leaving Lebermuth. In addition to consulting, Pappas created Essential Oil University, an online education reference and research site that includes a database with the chemical breakdowns of thousands of essential oils.

He created a Facebook page for Essential Oil University and teaches online courses through the page. This past academic year, Pappas also returned to IU Southeast to begin teaching students interested in chemistry and essential oils.

Pappas is excited to be back at IU Southeast helping students prepare for their careers in the same place he got his own start. Maybe there will be a future essential oils expert in one of his chemistry classes.

“This is a great university, with resources for students that you would expect only at much larger institutions,” Pappas said. “There’s room and support for students to grow and change here if they are open to it.”

Read more in the IU Southeast Fall 2013 magazine.

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