A version of this Q&A appeared in the Feb. 2016 issue of Soundbites, the College’s newsletter for the community, faculty, staff, and students.
You received the 2015 Braude Award from the American Chemical Society recognizing outstanding research involving students — does this award seem extra special being that you teach at a liberal arts college and not at a big university?
Most certainly! A vast majority of research done in my field is accomplished at research-1 institutions. They have a small army of well-trained graduate students and post-doctorates working together to acquire enough results to draw interesting conclusions. Even first year graduate students take quite some time to develop the skills to ensure reliable results, so I’m quite proud of our students for their ability to dedicate enough time outside of the classroom and learn the skills necessary to even see what’s happening at the molecular level, let alone actually contribute a small portion of the results. At St. Mary’s we are all working towards getting our students to take ownership of their education; this award made me feel that the outside world recognized not just my efforts as an undergraduate research mentor, but all of the work at SMCM that goes into developing our students. It was a great honor, and I feel I share it with our entire community.
How did you come to be a chemistry professor (I heard it runs in your family…)?
Well, yes, it runs in my family, but, no, I knew from a very early stage in my career that this is was my calling. Both my parents were chemistry professors at Ithaca College. My father was convinced to quit his industrial job at DuPont to come to IC in 1965, and after straightening out two dyslexic kids, my mother earned her Ph.D. and dedicated her career to education. In the 1960’s, undergraduate research was pretty much unheard of, so my father and his colleagues really helped to develop the concept of undergraduate research as a teaching tool. I gained an early exposure to the power of a well-fostered relationship between mentor and mentee, both in and out of the classroom, in bringing about positive change in individuals as they went through a crucial developmental period of their lives. This exposed me to the natural connection between the liberal arts philosophy of learning and the development of the whole. Chemistry just happened to be the right combination of questions and creativity for me. I knew I wanted to follow in my parents’ footsteps as far as using both student research and class work to educate in a more holistic way, to provide a good forum to push good communication skills, both written and oral, deductive reasoning, the power of observation, and the ability to think outside of the box. Growing up in an environment where learning everything was important taught me that nothing you learned was a waste of time, unless you chose to waste your time by not putting in the effort, and I knew quite early that I wanted to share this philosophy. I must admit that I fell in love with education long before I became a good student; I saw the benefit in learning everything even when I refused to put in the effort. By the time I finished college and was heading off to graduate school, I knew I wanted to teach at an institution where diversity in education would be appreciated. I knew the small liberal arts college was the place for me. For graduate school I went to the best research institution I could get into, and then did my post-doctorate work in an alternative field so that I was comfortable designing diverse research projects. However, I always knew I would be bringing these skills and ideas to a liberal arts institution as an educational tool.
Chemist, botanist, brew master are three attributes used to describe your range of interests/talents. Is there something common to each that attracts you?
You left out cooking, my top nonprofessional interest. What my work and hobbies all have in common is that you learn new skills, observe what happens when you apply these skills, and draw conclusions that lead to new projects. In the case of brewing and cooking you also end up with products that can make you a popular person at dinner time. As an undergraduate, I minored in art; I love art and the esthetics behind things. Creating things that I find beautiful for one reason or another brings me pleasure, and stretching your mind to add creativity to your work helps keep the mind young.
It’s been reported that your third child is the chemistry department’s nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer. What is so special about it to you and what will you do when it’s time to let it go?
If you ask my wife, the NMR is more like my mistress than our third child. I spend far too much time with the NMR because I really love the information it provides. The NMR is an amazingly powerful tool that really amounts to being our eyes when it comes to determining what happened during a chemical reaction. There are eight Nobel laureates who earned their prize based on the theory and applications of NMR spectroscopy. Starting with Otto Stern in 1943 and going to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield in 2003 (and we’ll see what the future holds). However, this technology is not simplistic. To give you a feeling of how complex the instrument is, our NMR has about 13 computers working together to acquire data. There is a PC to run the program for setting up the experiment and working up the data, a dedicated unit to orchestrate all of the components, and at least 11 microcomputers I’m aware of that run various components. On top of that, it essentially runs its own radio station, and has a kick-ass radio receiver, air handling system, and, if that weren’t enough, the sample sits in a magnet with a field that is more than 2 million times the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. That magnetic field is only possible at four degrees above absolute zero, or -452 degrees Fahrenheit. There are a lot of electronic components, probably more than all of our other instruments put together, so a lot can go wrong, and when the NMR goes down, we are blind. If you are someone who is heavily dependent on eyeglasses to see you can probably have an appreciation for how important it is to keep the NMR up. Without your eyes you will still be breathing and eating, but you can’t read a thing or recognize friend from foe! This instrument supports about half of our SMP projects, so if I want SMCM students to work with me the NMR must be up and running. Without it, well we could cut our students out of the research picture and simply rely on conducting our research over the summer with colleagues at other universities.
When the NMR dies so does research in the areas of chemistry that depends on figuring out the structure of molecules. So if the NMR goes we either stop doing research or find funding for a new one. This has been a big issue lately since the NMR is already past its life expectancy of around 10 years. We were awarded the NSF grant to purchase our current NMR in 2000, and thanks to a lot of TLC it still works.
What do you say to a prospective student who might be interested in chemistry to see if ORGANIC chemistry is their real mojo?
I wouldn’t say anything to a prospective student or even a first year student to try and get them interested in organic. If it’s their real mojo they will discover it in their sophomore year when they take organic chemistry. I found organic chemistry to be a wonderful combination of creativity and science, and I also loved the way it continually built on the foundations learned in chapter one. It is best left for individuals to discover their own passion when they first learn about organic chemistry. I suppose that’s the way it is with all fields. I don’t have any interest in “converting” students to my field, it is a beautiful discipline (as are so many). The students who find a passion for it will discover this themselves. When I talk to prospective students, or even our students, I ask them to search their souls for what they love to do, not a field they have been exposed to, but what they really enjoy doing. This is where they will find happiness, as long as they are willing to work hard for it. If you love writing, then pursue things that lead to a lot of writing, but keep your mind open and your exposure broad. You’ll know your passion when you find it. I am willing to bet that all of the really successful people in life found that the reason they made a living in their field was because they were really productive. It’s easy to be productive when you love what you’re doing. After all if you love it, you’ll put a lot of time into getting good at it.
Andy Koch has been a member of the faculty since 1997.