Chemistry is serious stuff—rigid principles, imposing math, inflexible concepts. It is a discipline that Carey Bagdassarian, William and Mary assistant professor of chemistry, has mastered.
Bagdassarian has earned his scholarly credentials; he continues to make his research mark in theoretical and computational enzymology. As an assistant professor at the College, however, his particular genius seems to be his ability—his sheer determination—to make chemistry fun.
"I would guess that I am not the most orthodox instructor," Bagdassarian admits. "I do think that a lot of learning is best done in a playful environment. Creativity is nurtured best by playfulness."
His attitude has struck a chord with students and has raised a positive brow from peers. It is a key factor compelling the College to honor him with the 2003 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, the institution’s highest honor for a young faculty member.
Bagdassarian’s approach to life seems almost casual. Walk into his class, and you may see students drumming on their desks trying to sustain a rhythm. You may hear the lecture summarized in a Zen story. If the class is an "interlude"—they occur, he explains, every fourth or fifth session—the discussion will break free of the current assignment and embrace the leading-edge science; "origin-of-life scenarios, rational drug design, protein motors, fun stuff," he explains.
As he prepares to lead a class on biophysical chemistry, the casual air includes his dress: His shirt is untucked; his blue jeans crumpled upon well-used orange-highlighted running shoes. “Is it time?” he asks the students, who are arriving, thawing out from their walk to James Blair Hall on a 20-degree morning. "Not yet? OK. I am going to buy a watch," he promises. He backs toward the door, only to return a moment later, chalk poised in one hand.
"Okay, it is time," he announces, attacking the blackboard. A box and a point representing a wave particle are drawn aggressively, followed by a series of formulas—drawn, erased and replaced—in a progression of math pertaining to the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. For him it is old science—"the principle has been around for about 75 years," he explains—but it is a challenge for these students, many of them economic and pre-med students enrolled to satisfy their chemistry minors. They question him. He answers patiently, chalk and eraser now held fast in opposite hands. When the questions do not come, he is the one who asks them.
Twenty minutes into the lecture, he walks from the board. It is story-time.
"There were two Zen monasteries, un-Zen-like in that they were competing," he began. He sets up the story line, explaining that every morning a young novice from each monastery was sent to the market. They would meet each other on the way. One morning, the first novice asked the other, "Where are you going?"
"Where my feet take me," the second replied.
The answer caused the first to return to his master, who instructed him to reply with a subsequent question, "Where would you go if they cut your feet off?"
On the second day, the first novice asked the second, "Where are you going?"
"Where the wind blows," was the answer.
Again, the second novice consulted his master and was advised to respond, "Where would you go if the wind didn’t blow?"
On the third day, the two novices met on their way to market, and the first asked, "Where are you going?"
"I am going to the market," the second replied.
End of story. The point: "Their interactions are very much like the uncertainty principle," Bagdassarian explains. "One boy tries to keep asking the other where he is going, and the other one never gives a straight answer. The first boy can’t nail the second boy down. It’s a very fluid interaction."
For some of the students, the illustration seems to throw light on the complex formulas covering the blackboard. Class is dismissed. Several students hang around engaging him with questions and dialogue.
Bagdassarian’s teaching methods may be unorthodox, but they are not random. Just like the Zen stories, the drumming on the desks was an illustration: in its case, of the second law of thermodynamics which suggests that all systems tend toward disorder.
"What I do is have the class play out drum rhythms on the desks. You can watch how it all, without any organizing principle, disassociates into chaos, but when you put back the organizing principle—that would be me, who knows the rhythm—it all focuses back into rhythm. You have music."
Explaining the point of such exercises, Bagdassarian says, "I talk a lot about literature, about books, about movies, whatever strikes my fancy. I try not to be myopic. I try to find things that have resonance, where everything is tied together, and where human thought—whether it’s art or science—is all coming to the same story. They're all striving and longing for the same thing."
On a bitterly cold morning, Bagdassarian’s students don't seem quite ready to assess their instructor. One student, Meghan Dubina ('04), quips, "He is energetic, which is a good thing at 9 a.m." Later, she adds, "It is an abstract course, but he is very good about taking the time to explain things."
Another student, Jeremy Ramsey ('03), adds, "He knows what he teaches, and he tries to make it as fun as possible? He is upbeat, and always trying to make little jokes." As to whether the jokes are funny, he responds, "Sometimes."
Melanie Millar ('05) is more to the point. "I was thinking about dropping chemistry completely," she says, "then I met him, and I thought he was so cool. We talked randomly about theory, and afterward I just had to take his class. I don’t think I am going to be majoring in chemistry, but this class is cool."
Less equivocal are the views forwarded to the College administration recommending Bagdassarian for the Jefferson teaching award. In those, words like enthusiasm, clarity, accessibility, encouragement, rigor and excitement were recurring descriptors of his teaching ability.
Professor David Thompson of the chemistry department praised him for having "an immediate impact on the quality of teaching in our chemistry curriculum." One student described the biophysical chemistry course as one "that stretches us beyond the basics … that guides us to think with creativity, integrity and independence."
Bagdassarian is pleased with the praise. It affirms the passion he brings to teaching; a passion that extends into his research—recently he earned the 2002 Phi Beta Kappa Faculty Award for the Advancement of Scholarship—and into his advising of young chemistry concentrators—recently he has helped four undergraduates by coauthoring articles placed in major journals. On the side, the same passion has led him to embrace diverse roles, including as faculty adviser to the College's rock-climbing club and as a successful grant writer seeking to introduce children to the world of West African drumming.
Add it all up, and "unorthodox" may be a pale word to describe Carey Bagdassarian. Add it all up, and it becomes apparent that here is a man who, in his own Zen-like way, is impeccably connected to chemistry as he is to a number of greater things.