This is the first in an irregular series of interviews with scientists who research in teaching-centered institutions.
Meet David De Haan, Professor of Chemistry at the University of San Diego.
What are you finding out in your research lab?
I’ve been looking at how chemicals present in clouds can cause haze even after the clouds burn off. It turns out that a bunch of reactions are accelerated by the evaporation of water, producing large molecules that can’t evaporate, so they and up as haze. This haze is an air pollution issue, and also connects to climate change.
How did you wind up where you are?
My first four years as an assistant professor were spent at a very small and interesting college in Arkansas (Lyon College). My spouse was doing some adjunct teaching in the math department, but decided she wanted to get back into research. I was looking for more flexibility in how I divided my time between teaching and research. Our oldest daughter was beginning to speak with a Southern drawl. For all these reasons we decided to go back on the job market, and moving to the University of San Diego (a PUI) solved all three problems.
How was your former job different from your current one?
Students in San Diego address me as “Sir” much less frequently. And the instrumentation available for teaching and research at USD is far in excess of what we had in Arkansas. Other than that, my experience has been amazingly similar – students at both schools turned out to be similar in academic preparation, and both schools have very friendly, student-centered chemistry departments.
How do you go about recruiting research students?
Since instituting a research requirement for all students in our department five years ago, finding research students has no longer been an issue. But we hold a “Sci-Mix” poster session in the science building lobby every semester, where students can come and find out about the ongoing research projects that are happening, and meet current student researchers. I find that my current researchers are my best recruiters.
What advice do you think grad students should be getting about academic careers that they’re not getting enough?
I think too many grad students don’t know about the full range of teaching and research “mixtures” that are available at different institutions. Many students think that you have to choose mostly one or the other, but there actually is a continuum of choices about how much research and teaching you get to do, and even some wiggle room within each institution. I think it’s important to do some teaching as a postdoc, along with research, to find out how much you like each activity.
What are your most and least favorite parts of your job?
The best part of my job is teaching undergraduates how to do research by working with them in the lab. They often can tap into the “excitement of discovery,” and pick up on the “zen of motorcycle maintenance” (trouble-shooting). In research, undergraduates are free to fail in a way that no one else can be, so they can take scientific risks. Even if their experiments fail, they still graduate on time.
The least favorite part of my job is grading. It’s thankless, and I’m always a little bit disappointed in what I haven’t yet been able to get my students to learn.
If you had to choose between working in a federal research lab or a community college (for equal salary), which would it be?
Having just said that this is a false dichotomy, if I had to choose between teaching and research I would probably give research my first shot. I’m pretty sure I could do the community college teaching, so working at a federal research lab would be a larger challenge for me, and maybe more fun. I do dream periodically of working at NCAR in Boulder.