Professor Michael Smith Retires after 38 Years of Service

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.

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Islam Mosa wins AAAS Student Poster Award

Islam Mosa (Rusling Group) won the first place award in the 2017 Science AAAS student poster competition (Category: Physical Sciences). The award includes recognition of the poster title and the winner’s name in the March 24th issue of Science, a cash prize, certificate, and a one-year AAAS membership. A committee of 7 judges from Harvard, MIT, and industry evaluated all posters and selected the winner. The 2nd and 3rd places of the same category received honorable mentions in Science and were awarded to Hendrik Utzak and Anahita Zare from MIT and University of Missouri respectively.

See all poster competition winners and honorable mentions here >>>

Electrocrystallization: Breakthrough in Gold Nanoparticle Research research team led by Professor Flavio Maran of the University of Padova (Italy), who is also a Research Professor with the Chemistry Department at UConn, reported a breakthrough in the creation of very high quality crystals formed of gold nanoparticles via electrocrytalization. This work was done in collaboration with Professor Kari Rissanen of the University of Jyväskylä (Finland). They published their recent work in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Their recent discovery has been featured in several news outlets.

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2017 Connecticut Middle School Science Bowl

Science Bowl audienceOn Saturday, February 25, 2017, the Connecticut Regional Middle School Science Bowl event welcomed approximately 200 students and coaches—and their family members—to UConn for a day of learning and friendly competition. The Middle School Science Bowl is a fast-paced, question-and-answer-style event that emphasizes the importance of STEM education. This year, 32 teams from 19 different middle schools throughout Connecticut participated in the Science Bowl competition where they answered questions in the fields of biology, chemistry, Earth and space science, physics, and math. It is through the Science Bowl that students are able to engage in a challenging academic competition with peers that share a similar passion for science.

The Connecticut Middle School Science Bowl is hosted by the UConn Chemistry Department and organized by Assistant Professor in Residence Joe DePasquale and Program Assistants Aneesa Bey and Ashley Orcutt. This event would not be possible without the assistance of approximately 85 volunteers who donate their time to prepare for and participate in this exciting competition. Among the volunteers are undergraduate students, graduate students, alumni, and local high school students. Many of the volunteers are STEM-based majors who share the same affinity and aptitude for science as the young competitors.

The Department of Chemistry would like to thank Gerber Technology, the UConn College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, and the UConn Institute of Materials Science for their support. The Department would also like to thank the UConn School of Engineering Diversity & Outreach Center, Connecticut Science Center, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Subway Restaurant for their contributions to this event as well.

The top teams of the day were:

First Place: Talcott Mountain Academy (Avon, CT)
Second Place: Middlesex Middle School (Darien, CT)
Semi-Finalist: Cloonan Middle School (Stamford, CT)
Semi-Finalist: Irving A. Robbins Middle School (Farmington, CT)

Talcott Mountain Academy will represent Connecticut’s middle schools at the National Science Bowl competition in Washington, D.C. April 27 – May 1.

The National Science Bowl is a nationwide academic competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. “The National Science Bowl® continues to be one of the premier academic competitions across the country and prepares America’s students for future successes in some of the world’s fastest growing fields in science, technology, and engineering,” said Dr. J. Stephen Binkley, Acting Director of the Department’s Office of Science, which sponsors the nationwide competition, now in its 27th year. “Each year the DOE Office of Science provides this unique opportunity, and I am honored to congratulate all the competitors who are advancing to the national finals, where they will continue to showcase their talents as top students in math and science.” More than 14,000 students compete in the NSB each year.

More information can be found on the CT Middle School Science Bowl website and the National Science Bowl website.

Paper Published in Nature Chemistry

Ryan Baumgartner, Hailin Fu, Ziyuan Song, Yao Lin and Jianjun Cheng “Cooperative polymerization of α-helices induced by macromolecular architecture” Nature Chemistry, DOI: 10.1038/NCHEM.2712 (2017).
Figure in Nature Chemistry Publication
This work is a collaboration between Prof. Jianjun Cheng at UIUC and the Lin Group at UConn. This research demonstrates the use of macromolecular architecture to facilitate an unusual auto-catalytic polymerization process, and elucidate the underlying mechanism by a two-stage kinetic model using principles from nucleation-controlled protein polymerizations; the key difference being the irreversible nature of this polymerization. Ryan Baumgartner (UIUC) and Hailin Fu (UConn) made the central contribution to this work.

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