#ChemCoach: My Story

Hey all! This is my contribution to See Arr Oh‘s ChemCoach project. Interested in what a chemical educator does all day? How I got here? Stalking me? Whatever it is, you’ve gotten this far; keep reading…

What would you say…ya do here?

I’m currently a graduate student studying organic chemistry and chemical education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I also work part time as a Graduate Affiliate at UIUC’s Center for Teaching Excellence, teach CHEM 332 (Elementary Organic Chemistry II) at UIUC, and run the website + create content for Organic Reactions. Most of my time is spent teaching and preparing materials for teaching…but then again, I have a very flexible definition of what counts as “teaching materials,” and my teaching and research practices often overlap (more on that later). I strongly believe that chemical education researchers should also be good teachers, and if they aren’t good teachers, they’re “doing it wrong.” You’d be surprised how many brilliant chemical education researchers fit this description…but that’s a tale for another time. My research involves the development and evaluation of educational technologies for organic chemistry.

Take us through a typical day…for you.

A “typical” day can vary for me, but here’s a broad overview. I teach at 8 am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which forces me to get to work by 7:30 on these mornings. After I teach, I generally deal with teaching responsibilities and preparing materials for teaching in the morning—it’s just a weird habit I’ve gotten into. In the early afternoon I’ll do CTE stuff: meet with TA’s, do class observations, prepare presentations, eat the world’s most delicious mints (seriously, they’re like crack for me), etc. The later afternoon and evening are usually reserved for research. My research responsibilities vary somewhat across projects, but I’ll go through alternating periods of creating content, writing code, collecting data, and carrying out data analysis. As I’m not a computer programmer by trade (although I always loved it), writing code probably takes me the most time…it’s a toss-up between that and drawing flippin’ structures in ChemDraw. Many of the products of my research are turned back over to students—to help them overcome difficulties, work more intimately with molecules, etc. There is one constant in my day: coffee.

What kind of schooling, training, or experience helped you get where you are?

I graduated from the University of Kentucky with a B.S. in Chemistry, and I can’t say enough about how my experiences there (good and bad) inform my teaching and research. During my time there, I fell in love with teaching, and jumped on an opportunity to serve as an undergraduate workshop leader for organic chemistry at UK. Advice for those who want to become chemical educators: start early. There’s a tired old fogey out there waiting for your youth and enthusiasm. Start reading the literature and critiquing the literature early, before you “get” everything—do not fear the chemical literature. It’s just vicious rumor, after all! Once at UIUC, I took a course on college teaching that opened the door to opportunities at the Center for Teaching Excellence, and I’ve been networking with other faculty and academic professionals on campus interested in teaching ever since. Again, you’d be surprised—there are more of us around than you think.

This seems like a good place to warn you that being a great chemical educator is not for the faint of heart. My committee is 75% “wet organic chemists,” and dealing with them is not an easy experience. You will be misunderstood, ridiculed, kicked when you’re down, and marginalized throughout your career—however, this is not an excuse to shy away from these experiences! On the contrary, value your interactions with practicing chemists. This is perhaps the most important thing graduate school has taught me. If you just want to crawl into a hole and teach, you’re part of the problem, not the solution!

How does chemistry inform your work?

Naturally, organic chemistry is central to what I teach. My exam problems come from the chemical literature, and I read journals daily. Chemistry is also central to the way I develop software: I think about how to “systematize” chemical principles so they can be encoded in computer programs. I consider how software can help students create and work with chemical structures more efficiently. I think about how machine-readable chemical data can expose common misconceptions and help students spot their weak areas. The list goes on, but thinking about the relationship between chemistry and technology fascinates me. The future is bright!

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career

So many stories…goodness. I think I hold the UIUC record for most hours spent on video on campus—I’ll even take the journalism department to task on that. I’ve recorded online videos for both non-major organic chemistry courses (approaching one thousand students per semester), so I get a lot of weird looks walking across campus, which I do almost every day. Once, a student ran up behind me on the quad and poked me on the shoulder…she had recognized me by solely by my voice! In the live classroom, I tend to be rather brash and vulgar. For example, what some would call “figuring out the bonds made and broken in a reaction,” I affectionately refer to as “cutting out the bullshit.” I also enjoy anthropomorphizing: past activities include “your hands are enantiotopic,” “surf’s up with pericyclic reactions,” and “the human orbital diagram.”

I blog here (naturally), and I keep my organometallic skills sharp over at The Organometallic Reader.

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