By Gabriella Reggiano
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.