Monday, March 28, 2016

Wandering through campus (as a @PhiBetaKappa Visiting Scholar)

I recently finished the last of my 9 campus visits courtesy of the Phi Beta Kappa Society during the 59th year of the Visiting Scholars Program. Wow! These visits included 6 primarily undergraduate colleges, in order: the College of Wooster, University of the South (Sewanee), College of St. Benedict & St. John's University, Willamette University, Bucknell University, and Hamilton College. The last three were research intensive institutions, in order: Johns Hopkins University, Kansas State University, and the University of Oklahoma. From the Society's marketing materials, the Visiting Scholars Program "sends distinguished scholars in a variety of disciplines to participate for two days in the life of colleges and universities with Phi Beta Kappa chapters. During each two-day visit, a scholar takes part in class discussions, meets informally with students and faculty, and gives a free lecture open to the public." The chapters were sent information about me, my available dates, and possible lectures on topics accessible to undergraduates or the public. After a matching process, I filled my schedule with the nine sites listed above. The only way to make seven two-day visits possible in the Spring was to obtain release from teaching. However the number of contact hours (with over 20 hours per visit) was much greater than the sixty-ish hours I would normally have spent on a single course. Though these numbers didn't make sense form a work load perspective, the experience was transformative and in a word, priceless!

I was routinely asked by the chapters if theirs was the best visit and/or what the other schools did to make the visit special. My answer to them and to you is that all of them were equally outstanding. No jokes about Lake Wobegone, please. Each of my visits included unique and different elements that were special about the individual institutions. My visits to primarily undergraduate institutions allowed me to walk in the shoes of their faculty. The level of interaction and attention to their undergraduate students is amazing and enriching for students and professors alike. My visits to the research intensive institutions differed remarkably from my usual visits. In those, I typically meet almost exclusively with faculty and a few graduate students. As a consequence of the PBK lens, my hosts made sure that I interacted almost exclusively with undergraduate students in classrooms, in small-group discussions, and in one-on-one mentoring events. It was remarkable to see the depth and breadth of the students and the potential we have as educators to reach them if only we stop to say hello.

All of that would be enough to have made it worthwhile. But just as in those cheesy late-night commercials we sometimes stay up too late not to miss, there is more… I had an opportunity to extend my network of friends and colleagues with remarkable faculty across the country. I knew some of my chemistry hosts and their colleagues from previous activities, but most I did not. My bonds with new and old colleagues were much more strongly cemented through the intensity of the programs that they prepared for me. Meanwhile, many members of the PBK chapter hosting teams were from departments outside of chemistry, giving me the opportunity to learn and discuss a broader set of ideas with experts who I would not have seen otherwise. With them and the broad set of students, staff and faculty that attended my talks and sessions, I was able to share my work in theoretical and computational chemistry, and my work to advance diversity in academia. The latter also appear to have sparked many conversations that I believe will have an impact in their efforts to improve campus climate and diversity equity.

All to say that my term as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar was as enriching, if not more so, then a sabbatical concentrated at a single site. If ever you have a chance to do the same, I hope that you will not hesitate in saying yes!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chemistry's Community Spaces

There was a time when book stores and libraries were the places where you met others. Like in today's universities, in which librarians can't get rid of books fast enough, students still go to libraries to study in their carrels. Unfortunately, the flattening of the printed word through electronic delivery is decreasing the need or motivation for you to physically visit bookstores or public libraries. Meanwhile, next-day (and next-hour!) deliveries de-motivate you from going to retail shops at your local mall. But we still need community spaces, like the Mexican zocalos, to see and meet other people. Coffee houses and fitness centers, necessarily serve products or services that you and others must experience physically, and are increasingly serving the need for community gathering spaces while proving that brick-and-mortar can still be profitable.

So where do chemists gather? Increasingly academic buildings are being created with coffee houses in mind. Sure, it's cheaper for me to make an espresso with the machine in my office. But if I walk down to the coffee shop, I have the extra benefit of running into students and colleagues. The upcoming National Meeting of the ACS in San Diego also serves this need. Going there, I get to hang out with over 15,000 of my closest friends. I can't, obviously, see them all, but I don't have to make many, if any, appointments. The chemists with whom I have common interests naturally attend the same receptions, governance meetings and scientific sessions. These chance run-ins are devilishly short and sweet. The follow-up often occupies my activities and seeds my next innovations over the next six months and beyond.

Of course, old and new gathering mechanisms can overlap. In San Diego, the Multidisciplinary Program Planning Group (MPPG) selected Computers in Chemistry as the theme. Working with my colleagues on the associated symposia, we introduced a special break from 10:00 AM to 10:30AM on mornings from Sunday to Wednesday called "CafĂ© con Ordenadores." We hope to leverage your need for coffee to discuss how computers can enable your chemistry. I look forward to my chance meeting(s) with you in San Diego starting on March 13th!

Check out my old post on some tips for making a large conference, like the ACS meeting, feel exactly like the small conference you want to attend.

This post was reprinted on the Sustainable Nano Blog on March 8, 2016