The case for physical chemistry

academics chemistry

For many years in academia, I have been teaching courses in what I consider the "Holy Grail of Chemistry" - Physical Chemistry (which is composed of Quantum Chemistry, Statistical Thermodynamics, Kinetics, and Chemical Dynamics. In these courses, physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry blend together in an exquisite way to provide a quantitative description of the nature of matter. On more than one occasion, students have asked me, “Why does the chemistry curriculum torture us with courses like these, with complicated concepts that we will never use?" I always take a deep breath and then explain to them why I love these concepts. They are the basis of today’s design of materials, such as mRNA vaccines, glasses, semiconductors, and more – the basis for developing efficient reactions that will solve environmental and sustainable energy problems, for understanding phase transitions where materials change their magnetic and electrical properties. Hence, they are the basis to develop and understand everything. After skeptical looks from my students, I explain that besides teaching, I also have a laboratory focused in theoretical and computational chemistry. So yes, I use those complicated, useless concepts that give them nightmares to explain how glasses are formed, how peptides can be cryopreserved, to identify a liquid-liquid transition in water when is supercooled, to design drugs that are used in cancer imaging. My lab takes those complicated concepts to develop models that are coded in computer programs and can provide researchers with invaluable data.  When I explain all that to my students, some see the light at the end of the tunnel, realizing that physical chemistry in this century is about solving complicated problems that require understanding of the fundamental concepts of chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics. One of the main reasons I started tutoring was to convey this scientific truth in a one-to-one setting - I love helping students understand fundamental concepts in depth and fall in love with science.

 

Gustavo has held teaching positions at CUNY Graduate Center, Lehman College, and UPR-Mayaguez. He holds a BS in Industrial Chemistry and a PhD in Chemistry.

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