Molecules inspire good teaching

Marc Zimmer, the Jean C. Tempel ’65 Professor of Physical Sciences and dean of studies, is the faculty coordinator of the Science Leaders program, which seeks to increase the number of women and underrepresented students in the sciences.
Marc Zimmer, the Jean C. Tempel ’65 Professor of Physical Sciences and dean of studies, is the faculty coordinator of the Science Leaders program, which seeks to increase the number of women and underrepresented students in the sciences.

Water. Ice. Vapor.

Research. Teaching. Service.

With a bit of science, some introspection and a good measure of deadpan humor, chemist Marc Zimmer drew parallels between the three phases of water and the three aspects of teaching at a liberal arts college during a recent talk on campus.

The lecture was part of an evening that celebrated Zimmer’s accomplishments as Connecticut College’s Jean C. Tempel ’65 Professor of Physical Sciences. It also honored Jean Tempel, a Boston-based venture capitalist, for her generosity in endowing the chair.

Tempel’s forward-looking support has been of central importance to the College, President Katherine Bergeron said. The beloved green heart of the campus is named in her Tempel’s honor. “Jean is always ahead of her time,” Bergeron said. “She is someone who loves new ideas and loves learning.”

Zimmer began his talk with a lesson on the properties of water.

On a chart of temperature and pressure, there’s a point where liquid water, ice and vapor intersect.

Water maximizes its hydrogen bonds when it freezes.

Ice floats because of a 104-degree angle in part of the chemical structure. If the angle were 103 or 105, ice would sink and there would be no life on earth.

Zimmer went on to confess that his favorite molecule is green fluorescent protein. Soon after he started at the College in 1990, Zimmer learned about GFP from Bruce Branchini, the Hans and Ella McCollum '21 Vahlteich Professor of Chemistry. He was hooked.

Using GFP, scientists can see when proteins are made and where they can go. The research has improved our understanding of many biological processes.

Zimmer told the story of the research – and his own contributions – starting with the failed experiment of a molecular biologist named Doug Prasher in the early 1990s. Prasher’s funding ran out and he gave up. But he gave the genetic materials he was working with to others who succeeded by making one key modification.

From there, the story winds through experiments with lasers, pregnant mice (GFP, it seems, can help repair muscles after a heart attack), a Zimmer website that has drawn millions of hits, the Nobel Prize given awarded to the scientists who discovered the protein’s potential, and an Alabama cab driver – the biologist, as it turns out, who gave up on the original experiment.

Zimmer then turned to lessons learned from water.

“Learning when to give up is an important life-skill. The water molecule doesn’t give up,” he said, describing how it works its way into the smallest cracks in its path. “Doug may have given up too soon.”

Another lesson: Go with the flow. Water goes downhill, but individual molecules within it travel in all directions. Students go in all sorts of directions too, some at different speeds and with different challenges. Good teachers work with them all and figure out how to meet their needs, he said. “The student is central,” Zimmer said.

And hydrogen bonding, that phenomenon that draws hydrogen molecules together to make water freeze into a strong solid? Zimmer drew a parallel to how he has learned and grown as a teacher. “With a little help from my friends,” he said.

He recalled that when he started at the College, he mentioned to someone that he played squash. The person suggested he try a game with Eugene Gallagher, the Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies.

Zimmer’s first thought was, “Religious studies?” But he soon discovered they had a great deal in common, including their teaching style. Gallagher became Zimmer’s mentor. Zimmer said the other faculty in the Chemistry Department are also important colleagues and friends.

And just as the most interesting point on the chart of water, ice and vapor is the place where they intersect, Zimmer said the most interesting area in his professional life is the point where research, teaching and service intersect.

One of Zimmer’s biggest – and most personal – accomplishments at Connecticut College is the Science Leaders program. The program seeks to increase the number of women and underrepresented students graduating with a degree and research experience in the sciences. It started in 2007. Zimmer, who grew up in apartheid South Africa, is the faculty coordinator.

“Some of the things I left in South Africa were still here. Disparity between races. Disparity between rich and poor,” Zimmer said. “Science Leaders is very important to me.” To date, five of the students in the program have continued to medical school and nearly as many have gone on to graduate studies.

Science Leaders is funded by The National Science Foundation; the Lloyd G. Balfour Foundation; the Maximilian E. and Marion O. Hoffman Foundation, Inc., whose funding established the Hoffman Scholars Fund for Science Leaders scholarships; and the Petit Family Foundation.

Zimmer, who was named dean of studies earlier this year, said he looks forward to furthering liberal arts education in his new post. As the College moves forward with a major revision of its curriculum, he hopes to apply some of the lessons learned through Science Leaders.

But he’s still a chemist. Zimmer has three students doing research with him this semester, and his new book, “Illuminating Disease,” is about to be published by the Oxford University Press. He’s also working on a children’s book about GFP.

Zimmer said liberal arts colleges can be much more nimble and quick than research universities when it comes to planning experiments and pursuing promising lines of research. “We can do things slightly out of the box,” he said.

After his talk, faculty gathered for a celebratory dinner. Colleagues took turns toasting Zimmer. Earlier in the evening, chemistry Professor Stanton Ching introduced Zimmer by describing his knack for making chemistry accessible to people without a background in science.

“As a scientist,” Ching said, “I can tell you the world needs more people like that.”

December 17, 2014