JUNE 2006: Home
The Magnificent Seven Print
Written by Niki Stojnic & Tricia Schug   
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Demolishing a Mountain
Associate Professor, Chemistry

ImagePhysical chemistry was one of Sarah Keller’s least favorite courses in college. “It was a struggle. I didn’t understand the applications, though I understood the math. There was some beautiful math,” she recalls.

Times haven’t changed much. Many of her students have built “P-Chem.” up into a forbidding mountain even before the first day of class. Keller strives to demolish the mountain—and succeeds. “Her course notes are remarkable in that they translate complicated physical chemistry concepts into plain English,” says Emily Terrell, an undergraduate who took Keller’s class.

Keller tunes herself in to student needs early on by giving students a self-diagnostic math test. The results help her understand where her pupils are starting from—and where they need to go. In 2004, Keller was the first assistant professor to win an Outstanding Teaching Award from the chemistry department, and in 2003 she won the Cottrell Teacher-Scholar Award, a distinction reserved for just 10 science faculty from the U.S. and Canada. While teaching, she also has a full research career and has published almost 30 journal articles.

She helps students see how the science they learn in the classroom applies in the real world. “In order to illustrate particular concepts and phenomena, Sarah has gone to great pains to incorporate meaningful examples from research laboratories and from the world outside the University of Washington into her classroom discussions,” writes one of Keller’s fellow chemistry professors, J. Michael Schurr. “I also use examples from Sarah’s research in my own physical chemistry lectures.”

Keller also hopes real-world examples will help her students make career choices. She requires them to attend at least one research seminar and turn in a written report on it, something Schurr has adopted for his classes as well.

“[Seminars] are important because when I was an undergrad, I vaguely knew I wanted to be a scientist,” says Keller, “but was not sure what kind of scientist.” She adds that seminars help fill the gap that older textbooks sometimes leave.

No matter the path her students take, Keller hopes some fundamental ideas stick with them. One is skepticism, which goes hand in hand with another skill: the ability to accurately make estimates, something that is useful for everything from a checkbook to a syringe dose. Says Keller, “That’s a skill that will help them whether or not they become a physical chemist.”—Niki Stojnic

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