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Creative Chemistry

02/09/2011

Shortly after arriving on campus in 2006, chemistry professor Rob Harris, Ph.D., decided to create a course for students whose studies did not focus on chemistry. "I thought, 'Why not make a course that would combine something "awful" to students - chemistry - with something that is very popular with students - CSI (crime scene investigation).'" 

The result was a class that puts chemistry into action. It continues to evolve, and Harris plans to include more forensics.

"The students like the sections on organic chemistry, the shapes of molecules and drugs. They also seem to enjoy our blood spatter exercise and the fingerprinting demos," he said.

Soon, students may learn about forensic entomology - the use of bugs in criminal investigations - as well as profiling. Harris also would like to add a laboratory component so students might perform forensic tests. 

It's this kind of synergy that makes him a favorite among students.

"Dr. Rob Harris is definitely my favorite professor," said Kate Collins '11. "It takes a lot to make me actually understand chemistry, and somehow he made it easy. I took every class I could with him." 

"I think I make chemistry not so scary," Harris said. "I think that my approach to organic chemistry makes it less intimidating. Most students fear organic chemistry due to all the horror stories they have heard.  I try to explain to them that rather than memorization, understanding concepts and applying them will make it a much more enjoyable experience."

Harris is interested in the creation of a new molecule that will help make other molecules. 

"Certain molecules can be thought of as being right or left handed.  In something like the body, molecules that have the atoms are connected in the same way, but differ in how the atoms are arraigned in space. They can have very different properties," he explained. "The classic example is thalidomide - a drug used in the late 1950s and early '60s to help pregnant women with morning sickness. It turns out that one of the forms did just that, but the other was a teratogenic compound and caused birth defects. What I want to do is create molecules that will help researchers perform reactions that make only one form of a molecule-avoiding the problems encountered with thalidomide."

Harris also would like to synthesize a natural product, or naturally occurring compound. 

"I think the logic behind coming up with a synthetic strategy and making it work in the lab would be an excellent intellectual challenge," he said. "Especially when the initial plan doesn't work like you would want and you must rethink your approach. I think this would be an excellent project to work on with undergraduates. The other thing I am considering pursuing is looking at polymers for possible application in golf ball technology."

Harris finds MCLA students to be engaged in the classroom.

"I love when a student asks me a question that I don't know the answer to. It makes me think and then expand my knowledge base, so I can go back and respond to the initial question," he said. "I hope students will learn that chemistry is fun and learn a new way of thinking and solving problems.  I also want them to realize that I want them all to do the very best they can." 

In the months ahead, Harris looks forward to the new Center for Science and Innovation at MCLA. He would like to see the return of the chemistry major and to develop a series of online chemistry courses that would serve Berkshire County residents.