A positive reaction

Dedication to graduate teaching pays off for Mungo award winner

A graduate student walks up to Richard Adams’ office, beaming with excitement. Her latest chemical experiment has succeeded fabulously, and she has a new isomer of an organometallic molecule to show for it. Adams and the student exchange a high five, and she heads back to the lab.

It’s a scene that probably plays out every day in research labs across the country, and one that Adams has been a part of innumerable times in his 45-year career as a chemistry professor.

“It can be real thrills, and the thrills are still as exciting today as they were 40 years ago,” says Adams, who has taught and conducted research in USC’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry since 1984. “It’s still just as fun.”

What’s kept it fun, he says, is the nature of chemical research. You get an idea, read up on the literature and go into the lab to test your hypothesis. The thrill of the chase is to do something no one has ever done before, and when you succeed, sometimes after many attempts, the feeling is pure euphoria.

“Some of the happiest days of my life were in graduate school,” Adams says.

That’s a sentiment that some of Adams’ 40-plus Ph.D. graduates share. Gaya Elpitya, now a senior research chemist at W.R. Grace & Co., remembers taking Chemistry 711 with Adams seven years ago. The course, she says, “had the highest impact on my knowledge and research in inorganic and organometallic chemistry not only because of the advanced nature of the subject but also because it was delivered by the best professor in chemistry I have ever known in my life. He is more than just a professor; he is a great teacher, mentor and an inspiration.”

Yuwei Kan, a laboratory coordinator at the University of Idaho, says she was inspired “by his passion and enthusiasm of the subject and his willingness to help. He actively communicates with students by sharing research ideas, discussing research results, providing perceptive suggestions, listening to students’ thoughts and telling us how to be a good chemist and a good person.”

Adams points to the lab as the place where the real business of graduate teaching takes place.

“You can’t get a good idea on nothing,” he tells his students, often encouraging them to read current scientific literature in their field as much as they can. “I’m constantly sending students stuff from journal alerts that I get. It gives them something they can build on because you’ve got to have a database in your brain.

“I might say, ‘What if we tried this with this?’ I even put little blackboards on the exhaust hoods in the lab for them to write down ideas. Now, let’s go check the literature; I don’t know everything about this.”

Being recognized for his graduate teaching success with the Mungo Graduate Teaching Award means a lot to Adams. “This is one that I’m really proud of because I’ve worked hard at teaching for a really long time,” he says.

He’s interrupted by another graduate student who stops by his office for advice on an experiment. “That’s not even my student,” he says with a smile. “I don’t mind. My door is open to everyone.”

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