Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Materials Girl: Secret professor tunnels

[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl]

Many moons ago, Stu mentioned the following to me via email: “…the last paragraph of this post is (a) quite funny – ‘secret professor tunnels’ and (b) I thought it might inspire a blog post about seeing professors out of context from the viewpoint of an undergrad.” Disregarding the fact that I am no longer an undergrad, I’ve had several notable run-ins with professors outside of the classroom.

My most surprising out-of-classroom experience took place at a small Japanese grocery store, which I visited infrequently since it required a cumbersome bus ride from campus. On this day, I was happily minding my own business of sniffing unfamiliar pastries and reading strange labels (UFO brand ramen? collagen sheets?). While I was thus employed in a cramped aisle, a bothersome individual decided to block my way out. Imagine my surprise upon looking up to see my very European organic lab instructor from year one! Never before had I seen him outside the chemistry building, answering a mountain of emails in his office or running between labs to identify mystery compounds in students’ beakers and curtail impending explosions (courtesy of those who failed to properly vent their glassware). He chuckled and in his thick accent asked what I was “up to” – a question that I directed right back to him, being apparently out of his element in the market… Turns out, our overworked, exacting, talkative, lovably cantankerous*, and irreplaceable prof got hitched to a nice Asian lady from so and so. Who’da thunk.
*Other students may vehemently disagree with me on this point, considering the heavy workload and strict grading in his mandatory classes.

The most amusing meeting occurred last year outside a certain campus eatery around lunchtime, as I passed by one of my senior year inorganic profs. He caught my eye, paused for a microsecond of recollection, then exclaimed, “Shouldn’t you have graduated by now?!” Having been just one in a sea of faces for a single term, I was rather surprised that he remembered me. However I quickly procured a grin (with less impishness than his) and explained that I’d defected to the MSE department for grad school. My memory fails here, but I expect that he gave me slight admonition for the departure from chemistry.

Perhaps this incident is less amusing than the aforementioned professor himself. This is someone who brought pizza to our final and promised extra points to all who turned in papers that were free from grease stains. (Of course, this resulted in 30 or 40 chem majors munching on cold pies after finishing the exam.) The first problem on the final made reference to duck excrement, in context of projectile length and standard deviation… While I am not an advocate of the theme, having recently forbidden one of my students to use “poop” in the title of his term paper, I appreciated the reflection on his great sense of humor – a quality I’ve found in very few educators. On top of that, he was a fantastic -if not snarky- teacher and a source of anything from sound academic advice to genuine encouragement. My hat goes off this venerable professor. I hope he knows how much we still love him and recollect stories from his class.

This last story technically didn’t occur outside of the classroom, but I can’t resist a quick deviation to quote an o-chem prof’s explanation of backside attack: “If you kick my butt, my arms fly up!” And with that quote for the ages, dear readers, I leave you to contemplate your own stories of professorial glee – I’d love to hear them!


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    Stephen Davey said:

    The demonstration/description of ‘backside attack’ reminds me of two stories from chemistry lectures that I attended: First and very effective for teaching was the professor who did a little dance involving pumping his arms to demonstrate the idea of symmetric and asymmetric stretches in IR.

    Second, and less useful from a teaching perspective (but still etched on my brain) – the professor who would wear a periodic table T-shirt to lectures and then say things along the lines of “Sodium, which is just above my right breast…”

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    Joshua Thornton said:

    Your writing voice evokes an image of an amused old man, reminiscing golden days long gone. I fear grad school has withered you!

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    Aly P said:

    My inorganic prof in undergrad liked to hear himself talk (and really, which of us doesn’t?), but to the positive, he almost always said incredibly amusing things. My first year (during gen chem): “guys, you are more likely to impress a girl (chemist) with a pencil, because thermodynamically speaking, diamonds. are. NOT. forever.” Later, during my inorganic class, there were a number of occasions of epic quotations, most of which are scribbled in a margin somewhere. My favorite (and clearly the most memorable) is from a senior-year cisplatin lecture: “treating cancer with chemotherapy is like treating fleas on a cat with a sledgehammer.” That makes him seem like a horrible person but it got the point across and really he is a great professor.