Inside Iowa State

Inside Archives

Submit news

Send news for Inside to, or call (515) 294-7065. See publication dates, deadlines.

About Inside

Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

August 12, 2004

Chemistry is her creative outlet

by Teddi Barron

The South Carolina girl with a vivid imagination that wasn't always stimulated by high school, took the PSAT during her junior year. When asked if she wanted information about college summer programs, she said "yes." Only two schools responded. Both offered programs for the same price. Because she'd never heard of either school, she chose the better value -- the program that lasted two weeks longer.

That's how Nicola Pohl got to Harvard.

Had she chosen Cornell, would Pohl be an assistant professor in Iowa State's chemistry department today?

Not likely. She might have followed one of several creative passions. She could have been an architect. Or a painter. A pastry chef, perhaps. Or maybe a ballerina.

Instead, Harvard's Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dudley Herschbach inspired Pohl to become a professor.

"He was amazing. It was obvious that he loved teaching and chemistry. I thought being a professor would be a great job, even though I had no idea what a professor did," Pohl said.

"I discovered a whole logic to chemistry that totally makes sense," she said. Curiosity replaced boredom and a creative outlet liberated her imagination.

Pohl graduated from Harvard cum laude and entered the Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. From there, she headed to Stanford as a National Institute of Health postdoctoral fellow. In 2000, she came to Iowa State with an appointment in chemistry and affiliation with the Plant Sciences Institute.

In four years, she published 13 peer-reviewed journal articles, applied for two patents, gave 11 invited lectures (and penciled in 10 others) and presented at four major research conferences. She was named a Cottrell Scholar of the Research Corporation and received a significant research grant from the Herman Frasch Foundation (American Chemical Society). Most recently, Pohl received the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award for new faculty. The award recognizes and supports the early career development of those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become academic leaders of the 21st century.

Intriguing students with chemistry

Pohl's research focuses on the diversity of sugars. She's looking at differences in the way plants, animals and bacteria assemble sugar building blocks to make complex carbohydrate codes. Eventually, her findings could lead to methods to adapt plant carbohydrates for new uses, like pharmaceuticals.

Since her first chemistry class at Harvard, Pohl has been thinking about new ways to teach the subject. She is using a portion of the $510,000 NSF award to re-design and update the undergraduate organic chemistry curriculum.

"I hear my older colleagues talk about their lab experiences prior to all the safety rules. They were blowing things up and starting fires!" she said, laughing. "Their lab experiences -- what drew them to chemistry -- is so different from today's. Everything is done in a fume hood. Students are separated from the chemicals for safety reasons. It's hard for them to get into it when everything in the lab is colorless and odorless."

She's developing lab experiments that use sensory cues to demonstrate chemical reactions, so students can understand the reactions that occur. She and her students devised experiments that replace clear solutions with a solid, a bright color liquid, or one of each. Pohl adapted another experiment to use the sense of smell. Students receive various compounds to make different esters with characteristic smells, like banana or mint.

Not every new experiment works. Some perform well in Pohl's lab, but fizzle when tried with 200 people.

Sharing her success

Realizing the need for new experiments that can be carried out in a large state university with limited funds, Pohl published her new experiments in the Journal of Chemical Education. The response - e-mails from chemistry professors around the world -- has been a delightful surprise.

More importantly, students are learning more in the lab.

"Sometimes, students in a lab don't even understand the most basic aspect of what they're doing. It's as if they were reading a cookbook and following instructions. If I ask 'Why are you doing step two? What's happening there?' they don't really know," she said.

Now the students ask 'Why is this happening?' They see the reaction and want to know more.

"Even though most students in organic chemistry won't become chemists, these experiments help them develop an ability to analyze the world. That's a valuable skill in any profession."

Chemistry as art

Pohl is always working to become a better teacher. She regularly takes classes in an unfamiliar subject. During her postdoc, she enrolled in an art class.

"I want to feel like a student, exposed to something completely new, with no idea about what's happening," she said. "There's a sense of panic and insecurity until you start to pick it up and realize you can do it. Then it's fun."

She also learned the techniques that art teachers use to help students develop three-dimensional thinking.

"Organic chemistry relies far more on the visual-spatial reasoning than on mathematical reasoning," she said.

Pohl developed her own ability to visualize in three dimensions at an early age, when she and her sister spent time at construction sites with their homebuilder mother. She taught the girls how to read blueprints and use their imaginations to visualize in three dimensions something that wasn't there.

"It's very much what you do in chemistry -- you envision something as you'd like it to be," Pohl said.

"In chemistry, as in architecture, there is an entire catalog of starting materials, of different building blocks," Pohl said. "It's just a matter of using imagination to figure out how to put these together to achieve the intended function."

Pohl's classmates in the San Francisco art class were lawyers and computer scientists looking for a creative outlet. But not Pohl. Her chosen profession is her creative outlet.

"Creativity attracted me to science," she said. "Being a professor is the perfect job for me. I'm never bored because I have opportunities to use my imagination every day in the lab and in the classroom."

Nicola Pohl

Creativity attracted Nicola Pohl to science. Posters of 1920s Popular Science magazine covers in her office are reminders that chemistry is part of a continuum stretching back to ancient alchemists. "Human beings have been trying to alter their environment and create new forms of matter for hundreds of years," she said. (Photo by Bob Elbert.)


"I want to feel like a student, exposed to something completely new, with no idea about what's happening. There's a sense of panic and insecurity until you start to pick it up and realize you can do it. Then it's fun."

Nicola Pohl