Q&A with Dr. Ryan Walvoord
What inspired you to become a teacher and to teach and research chemistry, specifically at a liberal arts college?
I went to a tech school and had the opportunity to do research at the end of my freshman year with a new faculty member. She took me under her wing and taught me how to run the experiments and analyze data. I really enjoyed working directly with a mentor. After being in large classrooms, I started to get into the more specialized chemistry sections, so getting into the smaller classroom size and getting to know the professors, we had that close relationship that was really important to my development as a chemist and as a person.
Teaching was not on my mind. I really wanted to do chemistry and run the reactions, but looking back, some of my favorite and most rewarding experiences were being a teaching assistant and mentoring younger students. I wanted to focus my attention on becoming a professor at a small school where I could have that same type of experience.
What do you enjoy most about educating and collaborating with Ursinus students?
It’s the relationships. Whether its teaching students in sequential courses, or having students for multiple semesters of research, you get to know these individuals at a very interesting time in their lives. You see them grow and when they graduate and walk through the gauntlet [at Commencement], it’s very satisfying to know that you’ve hopefully impacted them in some small way as they go into the world and pursue their dreams. You get to know them well, and I still text my students and we recently had a Zoom meeting just to catch up with alumni who were members of our research team. That’s fun and it’s unique.
What excites you most about your research?
Any time we make a new molecule, we run a reaction, we run the analysis and say, “That’s it! That’s the structure we’re trying to make.” This ability to rationally manipulate matter on an atomic level and make new matter is always exciting for me. On a broader level, understanding how molecular structure impacts brightness is exciting because it translates to so many areas of science. Contributing in these fields broadly relevant to humanity is rewarding.
What have you found to be the most unique set of challenges teaching chemistry in a virtual setting?
First, I give a lot of commendation to my colleagues because they’ve done a tremendous job making sure we transition as best as possible for the students, especially on how to engage our students in the concepts [of chemistry]. A fundamental part of chemistry is running experiments and collecting data to analyze. Much of this involves a physical, tangible experience. Translating that into a virtual experience where students can feel like they are doing the things necessary to generate data is difficult. There has been a lot of work in the field on how to design experiments where we’re still engaging students with those techniques so that it feels like a genuine experience and is a genuine experiment so they can apply the concepts to generate data.
What did it mean to you to be recognized with the 2020 Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award?
I was absolutely shocked, and it was a huge honor. I was not expecting it. On a personal level, it was very validating and encouraging because I frankly didn’t have a lot of teaching experience before coming to Ursinus. I’ve put in a lot of work to improve. I really like organic chemistry and I’m excited to talk about it. Some students get something out of that [enthusiasm] at eight in the morning. If I can make organic chemistry more accessible and more enjoyable for all our students, it means a lot. I’ve been really lucky to have some great students. It made my year, especially during a tough semester. To be nominated for it at a place like Ursinus really does mean a lot. The faculty here care about teaching. It is my proudest award.