Not Your Average Chem Class

October 1, 2015
Posted by
Kirsten Swanson
GMercyU Chemistry

Bemoaning chemistry lab after chemistry lab that required him to take one mystery white powder and turn it into another white mystery powder, Thomas Umile, PhD, knew he couldn’t have his students suffer through the same cycle during their undergraduate careers.

In Dr. Umile’s organic chemistry labs, students are expected to apply the theory to real-world experiments, including a recent experiment that had students investigate how and why scorpions glow when exposed to ultraviolet light

Dr. Umile joined the biology program at Gwynedd Mercy University as assistant professor of chemistry in the Division of Natural and Computational Sciences in fall 2014. He received a bachelor's and master's degree in biochemistry/chemistry from the University of Scranton and a doctoral degree in chemistry from Princeton University. He joins Gwynedd Mercy University from Villanova University where he taught in the Chemistry Department as a postdoctoral fellow.

"I am really lucky to be here. This division is so collaborative and I am very immersed in the biology program and faculty. As a chemist, it allows me to be more applied and make stronger connections to what the students need in this program than I could at larger institutions," Dr. Umile said.

With class sizes less than 10 students, Dr. Umile is able to design his instruction around not only what the students are learning in their other classes, but what fields they are interested in post-graduation. 

His unique spin on teaching the fundamental principles of chemistry with different examples keeps students engaged. By showing them how the concepts can apply to their careers, it removes the stigma that chemistry is only useful for chemists.

“I was really worried about Organic Chemistry because I kept hearing about how difficult it is.  Dr. U. has great enthusiasm and a method of teaching difficult concepts that really brings them to life and makes them easier to understand,” Sophomore Biology student Amanda Pirrone said.  

To even better prepare his students for the current climate in science, Dr. Umile teaches students about sustainability through experiments. Before when chemists were told to make something there were no concerns to waste and long-term impact on the environment. Today, all of those factors are considered. 

Dr. Umile had students in his Organic Chemistry class perform an experiment without using a solvent and an acidic catalyst – two key principles behind green chemistry. Instead, students used one of the liquid components as its own solvent and polymer beads infused with acidic qualities. 

As an added bonus, the compound the students made was fluorescent and glowed under UV light. The compound is naturally found in scorpions’ exoskeleton. This makes it easy for ecologists to find them in a dark desert. 

“Students learned how to make this from scratch. That technique is used in research. Part of identifying a compound when it's novel is you make that compound from scratch to compare it to the natural source. Sometimes you have to make something from scratch to prove what you found,” Dr. Umile said. 

Like any teacher, Dr. Umile’s hope is that students take what they learned in his classroom and apply it to their career. But for the time being, he would be just as happy if his students went home and bragged to their friends about how fun their chemistry labs are. 

Next up in Organic Chemistry II…the creation of glow sticks.