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    Dr V: The So-Called Bad Professor I Admired
    By Enrico Uva | February 1st 2012 04:27 AM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    When I was an undergrad in the early '80s, course evaluation forms were relatively new. Or at least the science dean at our university was slow to act upon them, or maybe he did not see things in black and white.

    Entering my second year of chemistry, I was unaccustomed to hearing negative things about a science professor. In Quebec, after the first year of university, a student has already been exposed to three years of college teachers. How's that possible? We graduate students after 11 years of grade/high school. So typically, at least in the sciences, in what would be grade 12 elsewhere on the continent(my apologies to excluded Mexico), students take enriched versions of AP courses in the freshman year of a junior college called CEGEP. The second year of CEGEP is more or less equivalent to a U.S. university freshman year, and so on.

    Among the dozen of calculus/physics/biology and mostly chemistry professors I had seen at work, there were obvious personality differences among them, and more importantly some were a little more talented in conveying concepts or in getting you to work harder without necessarily making you feel so much pain. But Dr. V was clearly cut from a different mold.

    In my first lecture of his analytical organic chemistry course, I noticed he had a hard time completing a sentence. While he spoke, I perused his manual and observed that he would be talking about chapter 5 for a few minutes, move to chapter 3, and then to 7, and then off on a tangent. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. It was after all just the first class. Maybe in his strange way he was simply giving us an overview of things. But the second lecture was just like the first one. Were all the rumors actually true? Were we doomed?

    Not at all. Dr. V's labs were like none we had ever experienced. No dull cookbooks to follow, and you could not turn to any peer for help because everyone was given a different unknown organic chemical to identify every two weeks. The functional groups of the molecule had to be inferred from characteristic chemical tests. There were suggested tests, but we had to devise our own sequence to narrow it down. An infrared spectrum, which gives a kind of fingerprint of the unknown, was also run. Using a screenless terminal (a teletype) we subsequently had to consult the computer's data base. Our unknowns were often and deliberately not to be found in the computer. But there were similar compounds. If we were on the right track, the major peaks of the spectrum would be in the same general location. Finally we had to narrow it down after consulting a more complete library of compounds found in binders thicker than my thighs.

    No professor may have setup a more potentially frustrating situation but only only Dr. V made me feel like Sherlock Holmes, or at least like Watson. He once told me, "Brilliant piece of logic Mr. Uva, but your mind was not open enough to account for one more possibility!" Dr V. was also the only professor I had who carried out lab exams and did so on an individual basis. He again gave you an unknown and you had to think before him. You had to devise tests and ask him for the observations, and then he'd watch over you while you were on the computer. After all the lab experience, the exam was not intimidating, and it was far more satisfying than acing a conventional written test.

    A month before the end of the course, one of his ex- students who was working as a technician at the university told me that his friends had once placed small nuggets of explosive nitrogen triiodide on the science faculty toilet seats. Dr. V had taken the prank in stride. It gave me one more reason to like him. After graduating I heard that he was no longer teaching, that he been victimized by bad reviews. It was almost as sad as the news of the Fabrikant murder of Michael Hogben, a former colleague of the innocuous Dr.V.

    Comments

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Really interesting article Enrico but not at all fair an outcome for Dr V who sounds as though he deserved so much more recognition, I hope he reads this article and feels appreciated. Those stimulating teachers are worth their weight in gold and we never forget them. 

    I can still remember my chemistry teacher Mrs R watching on happily as we dropped chunks of sodium metal into a sink of water and watched the spectacular reaction as it whizzed around the sink reacting exothermically with the surface of the water, to the point that sufficiently large pieces melted to a sphere and then exploded producing caustic sodium hydroxide and flammable hydrogen gas. 

    We also used to play around with myriads of tiny fluctuating, splitting and merging beautiful but very toxic silver balls of mercury on our desks, though I'm not sure she even knew about that. 

    I can't remember the number of times we students had to rush forward with handfuls of sodium bicarbonate white powder to try to neutralise the acid on her clothes and skin, as our teacher started to visibly dissolve in front of us whenever her experiments exploded and/or went out of control in class. 

    She certainly made learning about chemistry exciting for me and was always so amazingly good natured! I don't think she had been formally taught how to teach chemistry but she was a definitely a well qualified biology teacher. Once when I told her I didn't understand valences she said 'just memorize the equations Helen'.


    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    UvaE
    We had a Na experiment that went awry about 7 years ago, and I still see evidence of NaOH on the ceiling. The kids are stunned to see the ceiling change the color of wet pH paper.....

    And unfortunately, he won't be reading this. I just learned through a local cemetery database that both he and his wife are registered there--unless they purchased a tombstone or two but are still dancing beyond them!
    Analytic Chem II (identifying unknown organic compounds) was my favorite undergrad course in my major. I took it in the 90's, but we didn't even have a computer database of spectra! Had to look through piles of library books of IR, Mass Spectrometry, and NMR. Yes we did have a decent state of the art NMR, so that part was good.

    Then I got a summer internship at Argonne quantifying how much U.S. currency was contaminated with cocaine (turns out that at that time in the Chicago area about 70% of one dollar bills were contaminated). Anyway, I remember my boss saying he wanted to identify all the major compounds extracted by the methanol using HPLC/MS.. I thought "Dear goodness--this will take me a week." Then a colleague hit a button, and the console of the Mass Spec applied a pattern recognition algorithm and automatically identified 98% of all the major peaks.

    And so today I'm a computer scientist and not a chemist. ( I still have my Analytical Chem text books though my wife is trying to get me to part with them.)

    UvaE
    Then a colleague hit a button, and the console of the Mass Spec applied a pattern recognition algorithm and automatically identified 98% of all the major peaks.
    Neat!

    And so today I'm a computer scientist and not a chemist. ( I still have my Analytical Chem text books though my wife is trying to get me to part with them.

    Hang on to them! If your wife wins out , place them on eBAy and let me know!
    This was a good article. It brought to mind my favorite chemistry professor in the early 1970's he taught Organic Chem for math/science majors. He went to Stanford undergrad and Cal Tech for grad school, and was only two or three years on the faculty at my school. In my naive way I told him he must be really smart to go to those schools and he said "maybe, but the really smart ones went to the same schools in the reverse order." He was successful, becoming chairman of the Chemistry department and dean of the school of arts and sciences until he committed suicide at age 43. A waste? No, he was dynamic and exciting and he could light a fire under us all.

    As a sophomore undergraduate, I got to work in his lab, and I watched as his post-doc's struggled to get funding. It was really cool to have five or six personal tutors for advanced calculus and physics, but that was when I figured I had better go to med school since I wasn't in the same league as those guys.

    In my organic chem lab, I was responsible for two events; one a fire and one an explosion. Used a Bunsen burner as a heat source for a Gringard reaction for the fire, and for the explosion, I read the following chilling words after I had just dumped about 10cc of a physically hot product to another warm liquid: "Add slowly, over about five minutes, while continuously steering and keeping product in an ice bath."

    Everyone said I would become a better physician than I was a chemist.

    UvaE
    In my organic chem lab, I was responsible for two events; one a fire and one an explosion......
    Everyone said I would become a better physician than I was a chemist.

    It's like anything else...with practice, most initially klutzy people in the lab can become quite careful and dexterous. But medicine is at least as exciting as chemistry. Two of my university peers(Leonard and Lionel) were great in the lab but went on to medical school.