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Chemistry Distillations - Fall 2020

Chair’s Letter

Robert  J. HinkleCOVID-19, remote teaching, remote learning, the rise of Zoom, a shortened summer research session, an early and compressed semester – 2020 will certainly be a year to remember in the life of W&M Chemistry. The arrival of the coronavirus early in 2020 has disrupted so much in all of our lives and has forced us to adapt to new personal, professional, and societal situations. In the face of all these changes, I hope that all of you are managing to adapt, are staying safe, doing well … and doing good for others!

Although we cannot have a real Homecoming reception this year, we are arranging a virtual reception on Saturday, October 17 from 12:30-2:00 (EDT) via Zoom (latest Zoom version needed!) We were wondering how well this would work as each of you might want to “visit” with particular faculty members or other alumni, but we got lucky in that Zoom just released an updated version allowing everyone to select their own breakout room. 

As you are all surely aware, students were not able to return from spring break because of the great potential to spread the virus rapidly. Those of us in Chemistry spent much of that break gearing up for online instruction. Thanks in very large part to Prof. Randy Coleman’s early adoption, development, as well as his continued work on using technology in education – including piloting one of W&M’s first online courses – most of us had already been recording our lectures so that students could review them later. We ordered web cameras and microphones in March –before stocks were sold-out – so that faculty and staff members could record lectures and lab demos in their offices, or even at home. As a further enhancement, Senior Lecturer Dana Lashley brought a new grading program to the university’s attention several years ago and it proved to be a godsend for administering and evaluating students’ work during the pandemic – especially for our significant number of large classes. With these digital tools and our department’s ethanol supplies for sanitizing surfaces, we successfully weathered the storms of the spring 2020 semester.

Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing have been relatively easy on an individual level, but have profoundly affected how professors and students interact in classrooms and labs. In collaboration with the Emergency Management Team on campus, we worked very hard to make sure that students could actively pursue faculty-guided research in our laboratories during summer 2020. In-person research required myriad new safety protocols for students, staff and faculty members. Our goal was to be the model of how we could operate safely while providing research opportunities to meet our students’ expectations. Although we had to delay the start of our summer research session until June 15th, I am happy to write that we achieved our goal of operating safely while providing the research opportunities that our students deserve! Summer research grants and Honors funding programs administered by W&M’s Charles Center were especially helpful as they funded a large number of student projects. Since applications were due before the pandemic caused campus to shutter its doors, the Charles Center honored their commitments to students and contributed greatly to our program. They supported students working remotely, with additional faculty guidance, as well as students working in-person in the Integrated Science Center.

The onset of the pandemic also coincided with a domino reaction of significant changes to our department. Just since the spring, we have said “farewell” to three different members of our our team: Susan Mulholland, Bev Laws, and Amanda Thorsen.

Susan, our Materials and Fiscal Manager, became the new Fiscal & Private Funds Manager in the Arts & Sciences Dean’s Office. Though the timing could have been a lot better for us, we miss her and are glad that she found an opportunity in the Dean’s office!

Because of Susan’s departure, Administrative Coordinator Claudia Smith assumed many of Susan’s duties – on top of her own! Even though Claudia has since become our Materials and Fiscal Manager, the pandemic-related hiring freeze prevented us from finding another Administrative Coordinator; Claudia is still doing both jobs … and more!

We also just said goodbye to Bev Laws, our Fiscal & Graduate Program Coordinator and long-time VIMS and W&M employee who decided to retire at the end of September. We thank her for all her help and wish her only the best as she settles into a more tranquil life in Gloucester, VA.

Finally, we lost Visiting Asst. Prof. Amanda Thorsen to Christopher Newport University (CNU) right before the fall semester began. She was scheduled to teach a section of General Chemistry I as well as two sections of the associated lab course this fall, and General Chemistry II and its lab in the spring of 2021. Not only did she have an excellent rapport with our students, she also brought enthusiasm and a team-focus to her work with us. Though we really had hoped to keep her at W&M, we were unable to offer a long-term, permanent position to match the offer she got from CNU. I have to give a very big shout-out to Prof. Bob Pike, Prof. Jordan Walk, and Lab Director Jeff Molloy for quickly, and graciously filling the voids that Amanda left.

Despite these rapid changes and associated challenges, I am very glad to be part of the Department of Chemistry at W&M. We continue to attract excellent students, our faculty and staff members are truly dedicated to quality instruction, and we provide research opportunities to all who are interested.

I do hope that you continue reading by clicking on the links below this letter or in the left menu to see the highlights of this first online edition of Chemistry Distillations. Since 2020 has been such an unusual year, we wanted to share some student perspectives on learning and living during the pandemic. This year’s newsletter includes features by chemistry students as well as all the traditional favorites like Prof. Bob Pike’s annual crossword puzzle and Alumni Updates.

Robert J. Hinkle
Professor and Chair of Chemistry