UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Fall 2009
[eye opener]
That Eureka Moment
Figuring out what he wanted to do with his life was the first step toward becoming professor Mitch Malachowski

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BY BARBARA FERGUSON
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t least I was always on time for my classes. I was confused as to why I was there, but at least I was always on time.

It was the spring of 1975, and I was a sophomore studying something or other at Rhode Island College. I was doing well, but I didn’t feel any compelling intellectual calling, and it bothered me. I knew that I loved to read, I was interested in science and I liked to solve puzzles, but I was clueless as to what to major in and what I wanted to do with my life. Although I was comforted by the fact that many of my friends were in the same boat, I could hear the clock ticking. It was time to make some choices. But how?

I was playing on the basketball team and living in a rather dysfunctional dorm, so those situations were not helping me make sense out of my intellectual confusion. However, I was taking organic chemistry, and that is where my “eureka” moment happened.

I still vividly remember the tongue-lashing my professor, John Williams, gave me early in the semester. It wasn’t that I was doing poorly, but he could tell that I was not working to my potential. It was time to put forth a more intense effort. He asked me what I deeply cared about. What gave me pleasure? What consumed me?

My response was more of a blank stare than a thoughtful answer. He must have known that I was ready for some tough love: He rode me hard throughout the semester. It was an opportune time, as I was ready to be pushed. While my work in the course had been fine, my attitude and approach took a decided turn for the better. Seemingly in no time, I was probing the material at levels that were far beyond what I had thought possible.

Organic chemistry is a notoriously challenging course that requires a level of commitment beyond anything I had experienced before, but I ended up doing very well. More importantly, I found myself considering almost everything I confronted at a much deeper level. Even my Immanuel Kant course started to make some sense. By the end of the semester, step one in my richer interest in learning was complete.

I guess professor Williams knew I still had more in me, so shortly before the summer of 1975, he asked me to do research with him in his lab. Now the stakes and expectations were even higher: Not only did I need to know the subject matter, but I also had to be completely focused on the work so we could make progress over the 12-week session.

In retrospect, we probably didn’t make as much headway as I thought at the time, but there’s no doubt that my summer research experience was transformative. I loved working in the laboratory so much that for the first time, I saw myself as a chemist rather than a student studying chemistry. I filled up many waste bottles with chemicals from reactions that didn’t work, but I loved the challenges of research and learned to savor the successes and overcome disappointment when I failed.

Even now, I am amazed to think that I can go into the lab and produce a compound that has never been made by anyone else on the planet. Although it must have taken longer, it seemed that overnight I had a focus, a clear picture of what I most enjoyed, a sense of what my future might hold.

It was the turning point of my life. I majored in chemistry, went on to get my Ph.D. in organic chemistry and have been on the chemistry faculty at USD since 1984. John’s tough-love approach shaped my life. I shudder to imagine what it would have been without his intervention. However, it wasn’t just my intellectual life that was affected. My epiphany also showed me what a powerful impact a role model could have in helping another person find direction. At least once a week, I find myself reflecting on my undergraduate experience and looking for ways to enhance my own interactions with students.

Due to my undergraduate research experience and the power it had over me, I have a great passion for research with students. Over the past 25 years, I’ve worked with more than 100 students in my laboratory and continually use what John taught me in shaping my interactions with them.

In early 2009, he came for a visit and we had some good laughs at how far I’ve come from that lost 19-year-old. We remain connected, not just by our interest in chemistry but more importantly, by our approach to our students. I am driven by the need to pass on what was given to me some 30 years ago. I like to think that some day in some way, they will pass it on to another generation.

As Newton said, in doing so, I stand on the shoulders of giants.

Professor Mitch Malachowski writes extensively on the importance of undergraduate research. To share your “Point of View,” contact the editor for guidelines at (619) 260-4684 or e-mail letters@sandiego.edu