February 1, 2024
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Dr. Anthony Leigh, firstname.lastname@example.org
A Conversation with the ‘Chem Pod’
Montgomery, Ala. –Tucked in a back corner of Bellingrath Hall, Dr. John Berch ’98, Dr. Doba Jackson, and Dr. James Patterson call the ‘Chem Pod’ their professional home. Here, you’ll find a compound of the elements of B-Se-Re-As and Ca – Brilliance, Student engagement, Research expertise, Academic success and Career advising. In this feature, we get a mixture of their reactions to questions about their work at Huntingdon.
Q. What are you teaching this semester?
Berch: “Organic Chemistry II and the corresponding labs, Analytical Chemistry and the corresponding lab, and Research in Chemistry.”
Jackson: “I am teaching General Chemistry I lecture & lab, Biochemistry II lecture, Critical Thinking Lecture, and Independent study: Scotland.”
Patterson: “I am teaching CHEM 106 (General Chemistry II), CHEM 116L (General Chemistry II Lab), CHEM 410 (Physical Chemistry II) and CHEM 420 (Physical Chemistry II Lab). In general chemistry we will focus on the properties of solutions, reaction kinetics, chemical equilibrium, acid-base chemistry, thermodynamics and electrochemistry. In physical chemistry we are learning quantum mechanics, how to solve the Schroedinger equation for model systems, and how to use symmetry to identify allowed transitions in spectroscopy.”
Q. What do you enjoy most about working with Huntingdon students?
Berch: “The personal connections. Although it doesn’t happen as much as it used to, I love working with students during office hours and learning about their lives and their stories.”
Jackson: “I enjoy academic success and the passion that goes along with it. The challenges and success they achieve here set them up for the challenges of the future.”
Patterson: “I enjoy getting to see them develop as students and as people. I teach the first two chemistry courses in the chemistry and biochemistry programs. Many of my students take several more in the sequence. Nevertheless, even going from the first semester of general chemistry to the second, I can see how far they have come. Concepts that give them trouble in the beginning, become routine to them by the middle of the second semester. I really enjoy seeing students, who were at one time uneasy with the subject, become comfortable with what can be a challenging subject. You do not always get to witness that at much larger and less personal institutions.”
Q. When did you know you wanted to be a chemistry professor? Share a little of your journey from then to your role now at Huntingdon.
Berch: “I came to Huntingdon pre-med but was scared of being trapped after medical school if I didn’t like it. My advisor recommended graduate school and continuing to shadow and said I could always just get a master’s degree in Chemistry and apply to med school, plus, they pay you to go to graduate school in Chemistry! All first-year grad students have to TA, and while doing that, I saw the first light bulb come on for a student because of how I explained something. It was at that point I realized teaching was my passion. I finished my PhD and taught for 9 years at a place that could have been Huntingdon’s twin before coming back to Huntingdon to teach.”
Jackson: “I was a high school football player and I wanted to know how food and nutrition helped athletic performance. In my self-study, I began reading organic chemistry books in the library. After high school, I then thought I would study nutrition. I started taking courses in nutrition and I found out that I didn’t like it. I got bored with it. I had to take General Chemistry after being one year removed from high school and loved it so I changed my major and decided to become a chemistry professor. From then on, it was a long, long journey as I had to develop a lot of English, math, physics, biology, and laboratory skills to be successful in the field. That process took more than a decade and led me to my current position.”
Patterson: “I realized that I wanted to go into academia when I was in graduate school. I had originally thought that I would pursue a career in industry or possibly in the government at a national lab. I first experienced what many call the “a-ha” moment as a lab teaching assistant. Ever since then, I wanted a career where I had the opportunity to help students understand difficult topics. After graduate school I pursued a postdoctoral fellowship because I also enjoyed doing research and I wanted to be well-prepared to do both. My first faculty opportunity after my postdoctoral fellowship was at a relatively large state school (UAB). I worked there for 15 years teaching very large class sections. But I noticed that I was most effective when students would come to office hours. Not only was I able to help them better understand concepts, but I could also help those who needed advice on how to pursue a particular career, and even how to survive in college. When the opportunity came to teach at a smaller, primarily teaching institution like my undergraduate alma mater came, I took it.”
Q. What are some of your hobbies outside of conducting chemistry experiments?
Berch: “I always joke that I have three hobbies, Tripp, Reid and Belle, my kids! They keep me really busy when I am not on campus. I love coaching their sports teams, especially soccer, and attending their games if I am not coaching them anymore. Beyond that, my wife and I have an amazing friend group that developed via our kids and I love doing anything with that group!”
Jackson: “In my free time I enjoy learning new things such as new computer languages, repurposing batteries, and learning new developments in genetics and other areas of science.”
Patterson: “My main hobby since I was a child has been computer programming. While I do not have the patience to do it on a deadline, I enjoy writing code. In fact, it was the merging of my hobby (computer programming) and my passion (chemistry) that led me to using computers in my chemistry research.”
Q. What type of research are you currently engaging in with Huntingdon students?
Berch: “My research centers around Green Chemistry, which is the development of environmentally benign chemical processes. This semester I have one group working on the break-down of cellulose and the other group is working on the breakdown of chitin.”
Jackson: “My research has always focused on solving the 3-dimensional structure of macromolecules (proteins, DNA) and how the structure relates to specific functions within humans, animals, plants, and microorganisms. Most of the research now is computational, however, my students also do experimental laboratory science as well.”
Patterson: “My research students and I are performing a type of computational chemistry/biophysics called molecular dynamics on proteins that are implicated in neurodegenerative disorders. We use software written by federally funded research groups to model the behavior of the peptide that is thought to cause Alzheimer’s disease as well as the protein that is likely the cause of Parkinson’s disease. We simulate how these biological macromolecules dynamically behave in the presence of other molecules to identify key interactions and to better understand the mechanism by which they cause their respective diseases.”
Q. What’s your favorite element on the periodic table and why?
Berch: “Probably Gallium because of the story behind it. Mendeleev was the first to suggest our current periodic table which groups atoms with similar properties. He got a lot of ridicule because he left a blank spot and suggested that there was an element that belonged there that hadn’t been discovered yet! Most chemists at the time weren’t happy with his new design and especially weren’t happy with the suggestion that they hadn’t discovered all the elements. Mendeleev stood by his beliefs and years later Gallium was discovered and fit perfectly into the blank spot!”
Jackson: “Hydrogen. Why? Hydrogen is the most dynamic element in the periodic table and ‘it never stays in the same place.’”
Patterson: “I think hydrogen would be my favorite, simply because with enough hydrogen you can produce every other element on the periodic table. Honestly, as a trained inorganic chemist, that question is a little like asking a parent which child is your favorite?”
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