Looking Back on 2018

Happy New Year! As we enter 2019, a new year of innovation and achievement, let’s take some time to appreciate some of the wonderful things that took place in the Department of Chemistry during 2018.

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Jose Soria Named “Emory Williams Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award” Winner

As Senior Lecturer for the Department of Chemistry, Dr. Jose Soria has taught lectures and laboratories ranging from introductory 100-level courses to 400-level advanced courses. His sees the classroom as a space for scientific discussion and the sharing of ideas, an approach which has been well-received by his students and undergraduate TAs. Dr. Soria’s dedication to his student’s and unique teaching style were recently recognized with the Emory Williams Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. The award is given in recognition of a record of excellence in teaching, contributions to curriculum development in the awardee’s academic discipline, and pedagogical innovation.

As a young child growing up in Mexico, Dr. Soria was curious about science. He recalls playing with fireworks and doing “experiments” with his neighbors during his grade school years before he even knew what chemistry was. In middle school chemistry courses, he was fascinated by the changing structures and properties of compounds. After taking his first laboratory class, he was totally captivated.

Dr. Soria earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in chemistry from Universidad Nactional Atonoma before moving to the United States to pursue is doctorate degree here at Emory University. Following graduation, Dr. Soria opted to apply for his green card, allowing him to stay at Emory to complete a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Dennis Liotta. During this time, he became interested in teaching. He took a part-time position at a local two-year college where he could teach classes in the evenings. His experiences in the classroom lead him to apply for more permanent teaching positions, ultimately landing him back at Emory as a member of chemistry’s lecture-track faculty.

His classroom now is based primarily on free-flowing discussions. “When I go into the classroom, I have a plan of what we are going to discuss, but the way that it is discussed is not planned. It is not rehearsed because each community, each group, is different,” says Dr. Soria. He values creating a space that encourages students to speak up about their ideas, ask their questions, and grow as scientists together. Reflecting on an early experience during his teaching career, Dr. Soria explains that a group of minority students approached him and expressed their appreciation for the way he explained his research. That interaction influenced the way he continues to structures his class, with a focus on making the complex concepts more approachable through discussion and application.

Dr. Soria’s willingness to mentor also resonates with his students. “I think the thing that really stands out to me about Dr. Soria’s teaching style is his dedication to mentoring his students. When I told him I was going to be applying for grad schools, he asked to meet up with me so that we could talk about the process, what I should look for in a school, what questions I should ask, and what kinds of programs would be the best fit for me,” says recent chemistry graduate Daniel Salgueiro (EC’18, Blakey Group). “All in all, Dr. Soria is a very supportive and helpful professor, and I recommend all of his classes to anyone who asks me.”

Dr. Soria’s most recent undergraduate TAs, Eddy Ortega (EC’18, Liebeskind Group) and Nilang Shah (EC’18, Levin Group) also have wonderfully positive things to say about his teaching. “Dr. Soria values the environment of his class, the spirit of discussion, and teamwork,” says Eddy. “He loves pushing students to achieve their full potential and promotes students to give concise and well thought answers,” added Nilang.

Dr. Soria remembers seeing a colleague win the Williams Award twelve years ago and thinking “I want to be like him”. He worked hard to build his credentials since then, developing the courses that are now so greatly appreciated by his students. Support for his ideas from chemistry chairs—five in his career, so far!—and collaboration with other faculty and staff have also contributed to his development. The supportive community has helped Dr. Soria during his ongoing project of building a supportive, and now award-winning, classroom.

 

Student Spotlight: For Julia Gensheimer, Chemistry is a Passion

Julia Gensheimer in an ACS chemistry t-shirt that she designed.
Photo: Julia wears a t-shirt she designed for a contest prior to the 2016 ACS meeting. Julia’s design—designed in ChemDraw – won over 70% of the votes in an online contest to choose a conference t-shirt. “It began as chemistry doodles that I thought looked like letters,” says Julia. The shirt was for sale during the ACS conference in Philadelphia.

“I can’t imagine doing chemistry anywhere else!”

That was what Julia Gensheimer (EC ’19) told her mother after going on a tour of the new addition to Emory chemistry’s Atwood Hall. With its soaring atrium, shiny new labs, and innovative teaching space, it’s easy to see how the Atwood Addition could get a student excited about chemistry. However, Julia’s tour took place in the summer of 2015, while the building was still being built.

“It was exciting to have an exclusive tour for students interested in chemistry,” says Julia of the hard-hat tour of the construction site led by chemistry Director Todd Polley.

Julia’s ability to see potential in the unknown brought her to Emory and it’s part of what makes her such a successful chemistry major. Julia is excited about what chemistry offers—and what it doesn’t.  “In the lab, you are looking for an answer to some research question and if you answer that question, you ask another one! You search and you re-search,” says Julia. “There is always something to discover.”

As a freshman, Julia enrolled in CHEM 221Z, an accelerated course for students with AP credit. The class was taught by Jose Soria and Dennis Liotta. Julia was excited to be working with top researchers as a freshman and the course further fueled her interest in chemistry. Dennis Liotta says, “Julia has excelled at everything she’s done at Emory. As far as I’m concerned, she’s a future superstar.”

“Julia is great,” agrees Stefan Lutz, Julia’s sophomore biochemistry instructor. “She is an enthusiastic student and a hard worker.”

While Julia is a rising star (and a self-described “chemistry fangirl”) that doesn’t mean coursework and research come easy. In fact, says Julia, “chemistry doesn’t come naturally to me at all!” Like many students, Julia found organic chemistry challenging, but the community she built in the classroom carried her through. “They are some of my best friends,” she says of her organic classmates, “We formed a little organic chemistry family and continue to take classes with each other. We study together and support one another.”

A "Sciku" submitted by Julia during the 2017 Atlanta Science Festival. The poem was selected as a first-round winner for the Sciku contest.
A “Sciku” submitted by Julia during the 2017 Atlanta Science Festival. The poem was selected as a first-round winner for the Sciku contest.

Outside the classroom, Julia has been involved in research in the Rafi Ahmed Lab in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology since February 2016. She’s building on experience she gained in high school after spending two summers in the lab of Dr. Michael Jensen at the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research in Seattle.

How did a high schooler end up traveling across the country to get involved in cutting-edge cancer research?

She asked.

“I saw an advertisement about a cancer treatment without radiation or chemotherapy, known as immunotherapy at Seattle Children’s. The initiative was led by Dr. Michael Jensen and in minutes, I became his number one fan. So, I emailed him. To my surprise and utter joy, I received a reply and got the internship! I flew from my small town in Kentucky to Seattle where I volunteered full-time in the Jensen laboratory.”

The lab invited Julia back the next summer for ten weeks (funded in part by Emory’s Civic Scholars Program) where she completed an independent project. Her time in the Jensen lab also sparked another interest: triathlons.

Of course, in chemistry you can work hard and achieve. But triathlons—you must have an aptitude for those, right? Or at least experience?

“Maybe,” says Julia. “I did a triathlon my sophomore year of high school because I competed on the swim team at the time. After a triathlon hiatus, my lab members convinced me to participate in a triathlon relay over the summer. I enjoyed it so much that I joined Emory’s club triathlon team and finished my second triathlon last September. I will race again in the spring! I’m a terrible runner though so I really have to train for that part.”

Taken together, Julia’s accomplishments tell a story about a student who isn’t afraid to try, to test, to take risks. “I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t constantly challenged in some way.” Her next challenge? A summer research experience in the Ahmed Lab continuing her work in cancer immunology.

She isn’t exactly sure what she wants to do next – maybe a career in chemistry and biology research, most likely on the MD/PhD track. Or possibly on some track that hasn’t been built yet. Because if anyone can find the next cool thing and take off in pursuit, it’s going to be Julia Gensheimer.