September 17, 2013 - 1:52am
BY ROBERT ARENELLA
Brian Coppola teaches chemistry, is an editor of several scientific journals,and is the associate chair of education development and practice. Coppola holds degrees from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and was named an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in 2001.
What made you want to pursue chemistry?
I had an absolutely awesome teacher in the sixth grade, Mrs. Marie Smith, who really kick-started my interest in science in general. I liked the subject in high school, but it was my introduction to organic chemistry in college, and starting research as an undergraduate, that finally sealed the deal.
You cross between education and chemistry, but you could easily just be a chemistry professor. Why are you also passionate about teaching?
Of course, I am just a chemistry professor who happens to like to think about how chemistry intersects with the field of education. Seriously though, there is a combination of factors. I have been enthralled with the idea of education since I was a child and my motivation for teaching only increased over the years. In graduate school, one of the things you learn to do is how to identify really hard problems to work on and how to use your creative skills to propose interesting solutions for those problems. It seemed to me that thinking about education from deep inside of the discipline — in my case, chemistry — was not something that anyone was doing, and so it was a hard problem and something for which I was quite well suited. From an even larger perspective, I simply believe in the unique place that education has in providing a pathway for the next generation to see further and accomplish more than the generation before. If educators were not there to do that job, most everything would come to a screeching halt. Contributing a bit to your own students’ kick-start and watching them soar is extremely rewarding.
Last year, your research interests were listed as “mechanism and synthetic applications of dipolar cycloaddition reactions and in chemistry curriculum design, implementation, assessment and evaluation.” In layman’s terms, what is that?
On the chemistry side of things, my students and I were interested in a certain class of chemical reactions used to make rings of atoms in a predictable way. In particular, these rings of atoms are of interest to the pharmaceutical industry in its search for new and better drug compounds. We figured out, for one class of such reactions, how to make the process of forming rings more predictable. On the education side of things, I have been interested in how to enable my colleagues to get their own interesting ideas about education accomplished. Many science professors, in particular, do not get much in the way of preparation for their jobs as classroom educators so there is a lot of on-the-job training that goes on. To these ends, my department has embraced a unique idea: Namely, that professors not only work with students on research ideas, but also on teaching ideas. In this way, the chemistry students who might be interested in future careers as professors — undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral associates alike — can get some experience with many aspects of education before they start their jobs as faculty members.
How have Ann Arbor and the University changed since you came to town in 1986?
The physical structure of the University has changed a great deal in almost 30 years. Not only are there new buildings, but many of the older ones have been remodeled. And while the campus was always a beautiful place, the exterior landscapes and other structures and the increase in closed-off streets for pedestrian space have benefited the campus environment greatly. Something that has not changed at all is how terrific the student body is at the University of Michigan. This is one of our singular strengths. University students are socially engaged, incredibly diverse in their experiences and interests and they have their collective noses poked into all sorts of interesting things, often on a global scale. Even after all this time, I continue to be impressed by all the things our students are involved in and how much of real substance they accomplish.
Where should I grab a bite and what should I order?
Silvio’s Organic Pizza. Any of his pizzas are great, but I am particularly partial to the one with blueberries on it.