By Gabriella Reggiano

Michael Smith, professor emeritus of chemistry, on April 12, 2017. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Michael Smith, who recently retired after more than three-and-a-half decades of service, has made teaching organic chemistry to nearly 400 students seem easy. As Smith discusses his tips and tricks for managing a large class, it is difficult to picture him in any other profession. As Department Head Christian Brückner notes, “Few instructors are able to teach such large classes, and even fewer can command the stage of such large classrooms as effectively as Smith…His retirement from UConn leaves a large gap.”

But Smith did not originally imagine himself in academia. After graduating from Virginia Tech with a B.S. in Chemistry, he became an Analytical Chemist at Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., performing water analysis to keep the primary and secondary coolants of navy ships within specifications. When he realized that he wanted something different out of his career, he decided to go back to school to earn his Ph.D. Even then, he was not considering becoming a professor. “It just never entered my head that it was a possibility,” Smith recalled. “As a matter of fact, when I first went to graduate school, I had the idea to work in industry. That was really all I ever thought about. It wasn’t until I taught and I liked graduate school and I liked doing research.”

Instead, Smith entered into a long career in academia, leaving a lasting legacy as a teacher, author, and mentor at UConn. He joined the Department of Chemistry as an Assistant Professor in the fall of 1979, just two years after earning his Ph.D. Over the course of his tenure, Professor Smith has mentored 15 Ph.D. students, 13 M.S. students, and approximately 90 undergraduates. He has taught 75 semesters worth of courses, including both halves of undergraduate organic chemistry and graduate courses on organic synthesis and organic reactions. In addition to teaching at UConn, he has also taught courses at companies like Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb, as well as courses abroad in Spain and China. In the midst of all this, Dr. Smith found the time to author 25 books – which have sold in excess of over 100,000 copies.

Authorship

Dr. Smith’s first dive into publishing arose out of necessity. After joining the Chemistry Department, Smith began teaching a graduate course on organic synthesis. “Students didn’t know reactions. I started talking about reactions, and they looked at me like I was nuts.” Smith had to adjust his teaching strategy, which ultimately led to the inspiration for a textbook. “The book [Organic Synthesis, by M.B. Smith, Academic Press, now in its 3rd edition] came about as the idea of… teaching reactions in the context of synthesis. After teaching it for three or four years, I really got tired of handing out mountains and mountains of handouts…And so, I got the idea. I pitched it to a couple of contacts.” At the time, a senior editor was looking for an author for an undergraduate textbook, and Smith agreed to do that instead. Soon after, Smith’s new authorship afforded him the opportunity to execute his original endeavor and publish his textbook on organic synthesis.

Few professors are willing to undertake the arduous task of textbook writing, but Smith has found it to be immensely rewarding and admits he thoroughly enjoys it. “I started doing this from the standpoint of an adjunct material from teaching, and I found that I liked it… The book writing helped keep me in touch with what was going on in the community…It was an evolutionary thing. In hindsight, it’s probably the smartest thing I ever did, in terms of retirement. Where research isn’t available, book writing is.”

Since his first foray into textbook writing, Smith has had the opportunity to author and update the 5th, 6th, and 7th editions of March’s Advanced Organic Chemistry [Wiley], a textbook he studied while in graduate school. These editions have sold approximately 70,000 copies. A review of the latest edition holds the book in high esteem, suggesting that every organic chemist place it on their bookshelf (Laird, 2013). Professor Smith’s other recent books, like the undergraduate textbook, Organic Chemistry: An Acid-Base Approach, sold an estimated 5,000-6,000 copies and received similar praise. These books have helped to put UConn on the map! Brückner notes that, “I have visited universities all over North America, Europe, and East Asia, and Professor Smith’s books are well-known. Several were  translated into many different languages, also helping to spread their appeal. In fact, many students and researchers abroad have heard of UConn because of the Smith books.”

Mentoring Scientists

Unsurprisingly, Smith’s writing ranks amongst his proudest accomplishments. But much of his research, such as the synthesis of organic dyes which target cancerous tumors and the natural product lipids his group synthesizes, is also amidst his most memorable achievements. And like any mentor, Smith is especially proud of the graduate students who have come through his lab. “They’re good people and I like most of them,” he joked.

Dr. John D’Angelo and Dr. Faith Corbo, alumni of the Smith Group, both came to UConn to specifically work under his mentorship, and neither of them could make light of the impact Smith had on their careers and their lives. On his choice to complete his Ph.D. under the supervision of Smith, D’Angelo said, “I could not be more pleased with myself for making that decision because I cannot imagine a better career and life path had I taken a different route…I now know that I didn’t pick just a stellar scientist and mentor, but also a stellar human being.”

Both alumni noted that Smith’s mentorship style emphasized independent problem-solving, which has allowed them to grow into the scientists they have become today. D’Angelo attempts to emulate this style as an Associate Professor at Alfred University. “I have tried, with varying levels of success, to apply his mentorship philosophy in my own career. And that I have earned tenure is an indication to me that I do this at least reasonably well. I believe I have Mike’s outstanding example to thank for many of my successes.” D’Angelo has also picked up a more unique aspect of Professor Smith’s educational career: textbook writing. “Through Mike, I’m now a two-time author, with one of the books being co-authored with him. I am also working on a second edition of my solo book.”

As a Marketing Manager at King’s Industries, Corbo chose to work in industry over academia, yet Smith’s emphasis on education has affected her career as well. “We all know how seriously Dr. Smith takes his role as an educator. There were undergraduates working in our labs every semester as well as during the summer months. I saw what an impact this made on their education and interest levels.” Inspired by Smith’s example, Corbo has continued to work with students past her time at UConn, whether as a private tutor, adjunct professor, or mentor for summer interns. She hopes that she can make a similar impact on the next generation.

A Retrospective

After spending thirty-seven and a half years at the University of Connecticut, Smith has observed what it takes to be successful in academia. “I’ve seen people come and go. By and large, the ones who have been the most successful were the ones who had a clear vision of what they wanted to do and went after it.” He also advises young professors to seek out help when writing applications for grants, whether that be from colleagues or specialized training programs.

Smith’s exploration of different careers and original plan of pursuing a vocation in industry may come as a surprise to many of his students. However, in reflecting on his own path, he recommends students go through college and graduate school with a similarly open mind. “It isn’t just opening doors, in terms of college. It’s that there are doors out there that you don’t know exist. And part of college, and graduate school in particular, is the discovery of those doors and the discovery that you can open some of them or all of them…If you’re lucky, you keep discovering those doors.”

Smith’s decision to retire was not an easy one. It took him almost four years to decide that it was time. As a scientist and an educator, he had to acknowledge that there was always something left unfinished, more research to pursue, new ways to improve his teaching. The work he has completed, the textbooks he has written, the courses he has taught, and the students he has mentored are among his numerous contributions to this community. The UConn Department of Chemistry congratulates Professor Smith on his retirement and wishes him the best in this next stage of his life.

 


Work Cited

Laird, Trevor. “March’s Book Review of Advanced Organic Chemistry, 7th Ed.” Organic Process Research & Development 17.7 (2013): 992.