Articles

    Dr. Alanah Fitch

    June, 2004:

    School: Loyola University of Chicago
    Title: Professor of Chemistry
    Education: Antioch College – BA in Cultural Anthropology
    University of Arizona – MS in Soil Fertility
    University of Illinois UC – PhD in Agronomy (Soil Chemistry)
    University of Wisconsin, Madison – postdoc 1 year in Soil Chemistry
    Postdoc 2 years in Electrochemistry
    Northwestern University- postdoc 1 year in Chemistry

    I got into chemistry from cultural anthropology – where I studied for a year at the Universidad Iberoamerican (Mexico City) and did field study in the summer living with a farm family of 11 on a 10 ha. farm.  I felt very honored to be given the hospitality that I was and wanted to do more than become the next Margaret Mead, so when it came time for post college I wanted to get a second undergraduate degree in agriculture and join the Peace Corps.  I wanted to work in erosion control because I had followed my studies in Mexico with a semester at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Co. and was interested in the frequent mud slides that took place as peasant farmers were displaced lowlands to valley sides.  When I looked at the catalog for the U. of Arizona I found that soil engineering (erosion) classes were in the same department as the Soil Sciences Department so I applied for a MS in the department of Soil Science and Ag. Engineering.  Once I was accepted I was told that I would not be able to get an Ag. Eng. Degree because I had too little science background but that I could get a BS in soil fertility – which required that I take my first chemistry classes: freshman (2 semesters) and analytical chemistry.   I liked freshman but I really was lost in analytical.

    I soon discovered that Illinois was not the best place in the world to study erosion (so flat!) and moved to the other area of soil science: soil chemistry.   In that sub area I had to take quite a lot more chemistry (P-chem with no physics background and 2 out of 3 parts to calc.!) and found that the idea that you could actually really predict what went on as opposed to statistically verify fertilization rates was SO COOL that I wanted to keep on with it.  By then I had a new boyfriend (my future husband) who clearly would never in a million years join the Peace Corps with me and with that in mind I followed him to Madison where I applied for a post doc.

    With respect to Chemical Education, I had never thought to become an educator, indeed, while in high school I had made only two career decisions and one of them was that I would never be a teacher.  However, I have always felt that when one is given a job to do it should be excellent – and the PhD program requires one to teach – so I have always tried for excellence, which showed up in teaching nominations while working on my PhD.

    When I started at Loyola I was interested in. After that I thought that I should make an effort to update the labs and because I had gotten interested in the element lead as a way to teach chemical equilibrium in Chem 102 and as a subject matter that was of importance in today’s politics, I decided to make up an entire set of labs around lead one summer, despite my lab coordinator trying to talk me out of changing all the labs at once (she was right) but I was too because it did work – the idea was that instrumental analysis is often like a tour of Europe in 3 days (it’s Monday morning we must be in Paris) – there is not a “theme” or connection between different labs.  We teach that students should learn to make critical decisions based on the figures of merit of various methods (limit of detection, linear range, time involved, sample throughput) but then we give the students nothing that compares across instruments – so the lead lab works very nicely for getting students to think about what factors to focus on in choosing a methodology.

    The major aspects of my job are research (graduate student interaction) and major undergraduate face to face contact.  I also travel quite a bit to various conferences around the U.S., and occasionally, the world.  What do I enjoy most?  The students at all levels.

    What is my philosophy:  I had to take a workshop to get my instrumental class declared writing intensive.  I was pretty much put off by the whole education babble.  But one part of the class really helped me and stuck with me- which is that one must decide what one wants the students to actually know and then try and plan into the class the appropriate methods of achieving that learning.  That is, it is not about teaching and/or coverage of material that is in a text book.  It is about what are your goals for the students to accomplish and how best might they learn those topics.  The strategies will, if thought about this way, change from topic to topic (unlike a lecture which never changes in presentational manner).  From this I was able to think about sequencing my labs and material in a way that will lead the students up to independence in being able to design and verifiably execute an analysis from conception to completion.

    I am not entirely certain what I think about the importance of women being involved in chemical education.  Women in chemistry at academic institutions are important because “what is hot/sexy” in research is defined by a fairly narrow and inwardly looking group of institutions.  That is, if So and So A is at Harvard and doing this it must be cool.  I think that women tend to look outside of that inward looking group and make connections to the larger world and that if (something I AM NOT OPTIMISTIC about) that were enough women in the narrow and inwardly looking group of institutions then they could change the focus to outward/society looking.

    This June I am co-teaching a class on the environment with a faculty member at Kenya Methodist University in Kenya with 8 Loyola students and a number of Kenya Methodist students.  We will be there three weeks and we are bringing along equipment since KEMU has very little equipment.  One piece we are bringing is an electrochemical analyzer for doing metals in water.

    I just got an NSF fellowship for next year in which I will be bringing some of Loyola’s instrumentation up to the capability to be manipulated from off site (with appropriate firewalls) and will be deciding on various types of environmental experiments that would make for great comparisons between the Chicago are and Kenya.  There will be a total of four institutions involved: Loyola, another in Chicago, and two in east Africa.  By the end of the year we hope to be sending samples from Africa to Loyola for students in Africa to learn how to run large sophisticated and expensive equipment (with appropriate safeguards) in real time from Africa.

    Honors:

    I have been named Master Teach of the College of Arts and Sciences.
    I was one of 4 inaugural Loyola University Faculty Scholars.
    My class and I were awarded 3rd place nationally for class projects in environmental issues by Anheuser Busch in 1996.
    I was awarded a Schlumberger Fellowship in 1993 (unsolicited).
    This year I was awarded a Discovery Fellowship by the National Science Foundation.
    I have been invited to talk as plenary speaker at a number of venues (upcoming Council on Undergraduate Research), on my research (electrochemistry) at the Gordon conference on Electrochemistry, and at Cambridge Schlumberger Foundation, Cambridge England, and three separate invitations to Japan.

    I have a book out under review entitled “Sublime Lead: the Biography of a 5,000-Year Toxic Love Affair”. 

    — Written by MARILYN KOUBA