S.1 E.9 The Chemistry Lab and the Alchemy of Student Growth

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews award-winning Gustavus chemistry professor Dwight Stoll.
Posted on June 22nd, 2020 by

Gustavus chemistry professor and chromatography expert Dwight Stoll on working with students in his highly-regarded campus lab, facilitating their development as individuals and scientists, and enjoying the College’s newly renovated and expanded Nobel Hall for state-of-the-art science research and education in the 21st century.

Season 1, Episode 9: The Chemistry Lab and the Alchemy of Student Growth


Greg Kaster:
Learning for Life at Gustavus has produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

I am delighted to be speaking today with my faculty colleague, Professor Dwight Stoll of the Gustavus Chemistry Department, which he also currently co-chairs.

Unlike many academics, Dwight has been on both sides of the private sector higher ed divide. Before becoming a professor, he worked as a researcher with ZirChrom Separations, Inc. From there, he embarked on graduate studies at the University of Minnesota where he earned his PhD in Analytical Chemistry in 2007.

Dwight is a prodigious researcher, working often in collaboration with Gustavus students. In his first year, since his first year as a Gustavus professor in 2008, he has published more than two dozen peer-reviewed articles, about a dozen of them or more with students. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Agile and Thought Leader Award, the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, and the Faculty Scholarship award at Gustavus. Welcome to the podcast, Dwight.

Dwight Stoll:
Thanks, Greg. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Greg Kaster:
My pleasure, too. Thanks.

What, maybe let’s just dive into your research. Could you describe, in layperson terms, what it is you do and what its significance and real-world implications or applications are?

Dwight Stoll in Nobel Hall laboratory

Gustavus chemistry professor Dwight Stoll in his Nobel Hall laboratory.

Dwight Stoll:
Sure. So the specific technique that I focus on… So I’m, I guess, let me first say that I’m an Analytical Chemist, which means that I spend a lot of time thinking about how to measure various things. And the particular technique within analytical chemistry that I focus on is called chromatography. And chromatography is, in general terms is, we say a separation technique. So it’s an approach to take a mixture of chemicals or compounds and physically separate them. So that could be something as simple as maybe table salt where the main ingredient there, main component is sodium chloride, but there might be some impurities that you’re interested in. Obviously, things can be a lot more complicated than that. Things like river water, blood, urine, things like this where, in those cases, there might be tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of different chemical compounds present.

And the reason we want to separate them physically is because that’s the only, really the only way that we can begin to count how many of each different chemical component is present. And the reason we want to count them is because we, in technical terms, we refer to that as determining the concentration of a particular compound in a particular mixture. So if you want to know how much glucose is in your blood or how much protein is in your blood or how much of a particular contaminant is present in the Minnesota River, once we have those particular compounds isolated or separated, we know how to count them pretty well. But it’s really difficult to count just one type of molecule in the presence of many molecules. And so, that’s the, really the role of separation science or chromatography is to physically separate the components of a mixture so that we can more accurately determine what’s there.

And I guess I think of myself as somebody who’s really interested in the methodology, the technology, the instrumentation behind chromatography and separation science. So I always, when I talk with students, I say, “I don’t really care what problem we try to solve as long as somebody cares about the problem we’re trying to solve.” So whether we’re working on river water or blood or a drug tablet, I don’t really care as long as somebody will support us in doing that. What we do is more focused on sort of the details of the instrument; how does it work? How, where are its weaknesses? How can we make it better? How can we think in innovative ways to do the separation better, where better means usually faster, cheaper, with less user intervention, more automated, things like this. And so…

Greg Kaster:
That is a super clear explanation. Sorry, go ahead.

Dwight Stoll:
Yeah. So when I talk with students, when I try to engage them in my work, what I try to do is really try and find out where, on that spectrum of things that I just described, they’re most interested. Because there are some students who are really interested in the applications, you know? They’re really interested in Biochemistry and they want to know, they want to study the, some particular metabolism cycle, for example. And separations can be used to do that. Maybe [inaudible 00:05:30] really interested in Environmental Science or Environmental Chemistry, in which case they’d be really interested in a project that focused on the Minnesota River, for example.

And then, there are other students who are maybe interested in both Physics and Chemistry or maybe they’re going to be a Chemistry major but they’ve done a lot of Computer Programming. And because of the nature of our work, we can, I can usually find a place for them that allows them to engage with our work but also plays to their strengths. And for me that’s, in some ways, part of the fun of it all is, every new student that shows up at my door is a new challenge in terms of understanding what they’re interested in and where they can really contribute to our work.

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

Greg Kaster:
That is all extremely clear and interesting. Thank you. I was on the, you’re reminding me, I was on the Personnel, the Faculty Personnel Committee. You must have been coming up for promotion, probably. And I have a vivid memory. I may have even asked you about this at the time. This relates to your work with students. And you wrote something. It was in your statement, I believe, about how… I mean, I don’t remember exactly what you wrote, but it was… This is the gist of it. You expected, you held students to professional standards. In other words, they’re undergraduates, but you expected of them the same sort of professional behavior, professional aspirations; on and on and on; as you would in a lab and I guess in the private sector.

I was struck by that. I was so impressed with that. Because I think, too often, we tend to sort of let that go. Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you have any memory of that? Writing that, or… You know, [inaudible 00:07:21].

Dwight Stoll:
Yeah, I think so. I mean, the thing is, I guess when I, one of the things I’ve learned… A couple of related ideas, I guess, about things that I’ve learned, working with these students for a little more than a decade now, is that they’re… You know, the average student that we see at Gustavus that’s interested in chemistry or any of the physical sciences, I guess? Is very capable. I mean, on average, they’re really quite smart. And if you put them in a room with the right resources and adequate guidance, I guess, they can really do remarkable things.

And so, I think what I, sort of my approach to working with the individual students is to try to gauge early on what they’re capable of, what their background is, what they walk in the door with in terms of knowledge and skills. And then, put in front of them a problem that’s approachable for them, given what they know and what their skills are, and really try to focus on the gains that they can make from that point.

So you know, the sort of extreme opposite of that would be to put a problem in front of a student that is trivial to them, that they could do without thinking about it very hard. And that, for them, from a learning point of view, is not going to be very useful. On the other hand, it’s also not useful, I think, to put in front of a student, a problem that they’re going to feel is impossible. They’ll get frustrated and not make very much progress.

So again, part of the, sort of the game or the challenge or the fun of it all for me is figuring out what that right level and type of problem is for a particular student. And then, at that point, as you said, hold them to a pretty high standard in terms of how they operate in that context. So to what extent are you applying yourself, doing your work in a rigorous way?

And I think the value of that, as I see it, is that I often use the idea or the line with students. Like you don’t just wake up one day and suddenly be a good writer. You don’t just wake up one day and decide that, “Okay; today I’m going to become a very effective laboratory scientist.” It takes practice. And the four years that a student spends at Gustavus, I think, are a tremendous opportunity to practice those kinds of things. To practice technical writing, to practice their laboratory skill with their hands, to practice their way of thinking about problem solving. And I think without adequate, without being intentional about coaching them in that direction, they simply won’t make as much progress as they will if we do a good job of pushing them a little bit. Not so much that we break them but that it really nudges them in a direction that’s productive.

Greg Kaster:
I couldn’t agree more, especially with your point and your language about, you don’t just wake up; how many times do I tell the students that you don’t wake up and suddenly are a historian, or I used to say a good writer. Like this reminds me of that. One of my grammar professors, she had a… Oh no, she, we, we joked about it. She did. We were going to make t-shirts that said, “Historians are not born. They’re made.” Because she was making us, boy.

Tell me a little bit about how you… Speaking of this, this is a perfect transition. You weren’t, you didn’t wake up one day and say, “I want; Oh, I want to be a…” I’m trying to say how, what’s the journey? What’s the pathway? How did you find your way to Analytical Chemistry? Or did it find you, or a bit of both?

Dwight Stoll:
I think more the latter, that it found me. It’s, at that point in my life, I guess when I was, when I would, when I was making the transition to sort of becoming a, aspiring to be a Professional Analytical Chemist, let’s say? That was a very sort of meandering time and I wouldn’t claim that I had any grand plan.

So the undergraduate days are especially wandering in some ways. So I started out undergraduate career as a Mechanical Engineering major. And didn’t take me too long to realize that I didn’t have the math skills that a lot of my classmates had, so. Which was really required for that type of undergraduate studies. So I bailed on that plan pretty early and actually took some time off, about a year off.

So I withdrew from my first year and took about a year off. And then came back to it with a renewed vigor, I would say. And also some, a better appreciation for what it would take to be successful, just in terms of work habits and things like that. And but also, switched to Biology. So my second major was Biology. And I stuck with that to the end and picked up some biochemistry at the end.

And by the end of the four years? I mean, I worked pretty hard those last years. And I think, like a lot of students are at the end of four years, are pretty tired. I was just really kind of worn out. And so, I fully intended to go to graduate school at that point. I kind of took up a pretty strong interest in plant biology actually, plant physiology, as an undergraduate insight. Intended to go to graduate school in that sort of sub-discipline.

But I was really tired, as I said. And so my… I was taking, I guess, what we would call a gap year now. And intended to find some gainful employment in that gap year. And I didn’t find any, at least not quickly. And through an office conversation with a mentor of mine at the time, decided not to pursue a particular job offer that I had because he thought I could do better than that. And at the end of that conversation, you know? This is one of those sort of classic stories. But on the way out of his office, he said to me, “Well, there’s a job posting on the door. You ought to take a look at that. Maybe… You never know, you know? Maybe it’s something you’re interested in.”

And that was the job posting for the job at ZirChrom, actually. And so, one thing led to another and I ended up there. It was kind of… You know, they were really looking for a chemist. I was more of a biologist than a chemist at the time but they took a chance on me. And it was a really small company when I started. At one point when I, shortly after I started, it was, I was literally the only one in the lab. And I learned a tremendous amount because I had to do everything. So I made materials. I characterized them using this chromatography technique that was new to me at the time. I shipped product. I fielded phone calls from customers that were having problems and so on. And over the three-and-a-half years that I was there, we grew a lot. We, by the time I left, we were up to 10 people in the lab.

And so, it was a really rich time. I learned a tremendous amount. And, but it was really during that time that I fell in love with this technique called chromatography and became, came to understand more what the discipline of analytical chemistry was about.

And the president of that company at the time was Peter Carr. And he, I said, “Hey, why don’t I do a Graduate Degree in this field called Analytical Chemistry? Would you be willing to have me in your research group?” And there again he’s, he took a chance, I would say, a little bit, in a way. Because, again, I was… You know, the average student that he would look for as an incoming graduate student would have had a solid chemistry background. And I really didn’t at that point. So I had to take some additional undergraduate courses to sort of beef up a few areas. And then, the rest is history, as they say.

So yeah, I think, to your question, I would say it found me more than I found it. But this is… You know, I think my story is, I tell this, go through this a lot with students because a lot of them wander, too. And I think it’s, in some ways, a good example of how it can all be okay in the end if you don’t all have it, have it all figured out when you first show up at Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:
I’m suppressing cheers and hurrahs. I really can’t agree more. I now start every class, no matter what level, with this. And some of them, some of the students have had to read this two or three times. But it’s a very short article about choosing a major. And the basic thrust of it is exactly what you just said. I’m not sure they use the word wandering, but similar. And so, often it’s not, there’s not a straight line between what you major in and what you wind up doing. I think they cite a guy who was walking, maybe he was in a rock group or something; a musician walking home, looking at the stars; and ultimately became an astrophysicist.

But you just… You know, I think that wandering is so important and so enriching. Parents, of course, aren’t always thrilled with it. But I think it’s important on the list.

What about the rewards of a place like Gustavus for you, not only you personally; of course that; but just in general? I mean, my sense is that a chemist of, certainly of your caliber could get a job in the private sector. What keeps you at Gustavus? What is it about researching with students, students researching with you at a liberal arts college, that you find particularly rewarding?

Dwight Stoll:
Yeah. So I spoke a little bit earlier about this. Sort of getting to know students and find out where their interests are relative to my research program and where they can kind of fit. And I, so I would just sort of expand on that a little bit to say that, in that process of sort of getting to know you, there’s an element of, “So tell me about your hopes and dreams and your fears,” you know? “What did you come here wanting to do? Where does that originate from? What experiences lead you to that?” And just as a way of understanding where they’re coming from, where those things originate. And then, like I said, trying to put in front of them opportunities for them to stretch and grow. And without too much pressure at all, I think there’s a lot of, sort of transitions that take place sort of naturally.

So it’s fairly common, I would say, with the students that I work with. There’s sort of a prototypical student, you know? Comes in having really very little idea about what the scientific enterprise looks like in a way, sort of what research is really about.

So they come in not knowing a lot about that. Maybe they have some aspirations for a particular career path. And then, over… You know, again, very sort of slowly over the period of years, they come to understand more about what research looks like as a discipline, as a profession, as a way of professional life, and become very interested. And maybe even the words fall in love are appropriate. And they leave with a completely different perspective, having set their sights on research or science in a broad sense as a career.

And that, for me, watching that transition, is I think the most, certainly one of the most rewarding things. And sort of having the opportunity to guide and support that transition, I think, is, yeah. It’s tremendously rewarding, for sure.

Greg Kaster:
And I think you just offered a wonderful summary, really, of what it means to be, to receive an education. I mean, the transitions one undergoes. I was just thinking, as you were speaking about the students we get in the History Department who, for whom initially, history is simply memorization, that’s how they’ve been taught it too often, the last memorization of names and dates. Which, of course, in a way, has nothing to do with history. It’s all about the method. I can’t say it’s a scientific method. Some historians claim that; I wouldn’t. But it’s all about that; learning what it means to do research, to be a researcher, to have that professional identity.

What are some of the student… Sorry, what are some of the things your students go on to do from your lab? Maybe even, if you can, pick a couple of specific examples for us.

Dwight Stoll:
Yeah. So as a kind of preface to that, I would say that one of the maybe misconceptions, I think, that people have about a degree in Chemistry or Biology or Physics or whatever is that there’s a chance, a risk maybe, of slotting yourself into that path forever. And one of the things that I’ve seen, just in terms of what students do, so coming to your question, is that’s absolutely not the case. I mean, I think the, what we see, what we experience with students is that actually, a degree in Chemistry from Gustavus can be very flexibly applied.

So in fact, probably, certainly less than 50% of students that graduate with Chemistry majors we would look at today and identify them as “pure chemists.” They do lots of different things. So we see students go on to do, study water chemistry, for example. Which is… Yeah, it’s chemistry, but it’s more focused on, there’s more emphasis on the water than the chemistry. We see students go on to, one of my former research students is now a, let’s say a Forensic Toxicologist, working in the State Crime Lab in Iowa.

A lot of students find very financially rewarding careers in the pharmaceutical industry, simply because that’s where a lot of good paying jobs are. So that’s, for people in my subdiscipline, that’s a really great target. It always has been, historically. We see students doing… So in Chemistry, of course, we see a lot of students with what we call pre-health aspiration. So with degrees in Chemistry, they’ll go on to Medical, Dental, Pharmacy School and so on and have really rich and productive careers in those fields.

Thinking about more recently, we have also had students do Bioinformatics. So degree in Chemistry, but then, probably also some Biology courses and some Computer Science. But then, so the field of Bioinformatics is really… You know, how do we use information in Computer Science to solve or address biological questions. So again, there’s kind of a, it’s a lateral shift in a way, but it’s, we wouldn’t identify that student as doing Chemistry, per se.

So I think one of the things I really try to emphasize with students and parents is, I think it’s a really flexible degree. And for me, it kind of boils down to, I think at the heart of that fact is the realization that really, what we’re doing in a lot of courses is teaching students or helping them learn to be problem solvers. And that might sound like it trivializes the matter, but I don’t think it does at all. I think, at the core of science and research and making progress in any field, is a systematic approach to looking at questions with a foundation and reason and logic. And you know, maybe more than ever, the world needs good problem solvers. So if those problem solvers happen to have degrees in Chemistry, I think that’s totally fine, wherever they end up.

Greg Kaster:
Again, I mean, I’m thinking about history and the parallel for… That’s exactly right, the emphasis on problem solving. There’s a, he’s really, he’s actually in the education department at Stanford, Sam Wineburg; I think he has a BA in History. Brought him to Gustavus some years ago when I was chair of the department. Because he’d then just written this wonderful book called Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. And the whole point of it is… Yeah, it’s a great title. To be a historian is to… You know, it’s to learn how to practice a certain kind of thinking and problem solving. It isn’t simply memorization of names, dates, and information.

So I do love that. I did not attend a liberal arts college. I attended a state school and then a big, private university. But when I think back on my education, it was exactly those experiences, the professors who posed problems, whether it was a problem we had to solve in an essay, a problem about a book, a novel; it didn’t matter; that are still with me. I mean, I learned so much from those courses and those professors.

I want to switch gears a little bit. Because you’ve been, you can tell me when I’m done asking you the question whether you still are the leader of the Academic Technology Committee at Gustavus. But could you say a little bit about technology and Gustavus? I’m actually impressed with what the college has done. I’ve gone to some other institutions; not to work, but to visit. And I’ve actually been appalled in some cases at how primitive their technology seems. So I’m talking about classroom technology, that sort of thing. Any thoughts about where Gustavus is at in that?

Dwight Stoll:
Yeah. So I’m not on the committee anymore, but I was for, I think I’ve been off now for two or three years. I think I was on it for like eight of my nine first years or something like that.

So I think… I mean, one of the things, I guess, I appreciate? I mean, I think it’s a, technology on a college campus, I think, is a difficult thing in the sense that there are so many needs. And it’s expensive. And it’s, so not only expensive in a sort of upfront capital sense, but it’s also expensive in the sense that things are always changing. And so, if you want to sort of be close to the leading edge of one particular area, you have to… You know, it’s like, it’s kind of like being on a treadmill. I mean, you’re always running pretty fast and that gets really expensive.

And one of the things that impresses me quite a lot about the way Gustavus operates with respect to technology, both in terms of what you called out in terms of classroom technology. But I would also say we have tremendous technology needs in the sciences as well, to make sure that we’re providing students with opportunities to work with technology that’s relevant to what they might see when they leave.

So what’s, one of the things that’s impressed me is how clever, how resourceful, how willing to be creative, I would say, a lot of people on the campus have been. So a lot of creative solutions to address what is a difficult problem, which is allocating and finding the resources to do these things.

I think what’s going to be fascinating, really? Given where we are at this moment is what happens post-coronavirus. I mean, there’s just tremendous creativity happening every single day in terms of how technology is deployed to deal with these dynamic times. But I think, whether by choice or not, everybody in higher ed is learning a lot about what technology can do, what things are helpful, but also, where the limitations are. And it’s going to be really fascinating to watch how things look in a year or two, how we learn from this and how the places where real gaps are identified and how those are filled or not, going forward.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah. So that is going to be very interesting. I mean, just in general, the impact on higher ed, for better or for worse, but also that in particular.

And this leads me to, actually reminds me that you are in Nobel Hall, which is undergoing… Or almost done, I guess? Extensive renovations. Can you say a little bit about that? What’s it like in the new digs?

Dwight Stoll:
Yeah. The new digs are wonderful. It’s a beautiful space. I guess the things that I would highlight are that the space now is built in a way that really reflects the practice of science in 2020 as opposed to the practice of science in 1960 or 1990, depending on which iteration of the former Nobel Hall you experienced.

And that has lots of facets to it. So one is safety. We’re just much better equipped with proper ventilation and proper spacing for safe work in a laboratory. Those are all great things. Just in terms of utilities, a lot of the… I mean, the vast majority of the equipment in the building now didn’t exist in 1960 or maybe even in 1990. So how those pieces of equipment are supported in terms of ventilation, power, gas supplies, and all these things. We’re just in a so much better position to, again, really put in front of students equipment and technology that’s going to be relevant to what they’re going to see in two or three or four years after they leave Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:
Sorry. I was… Go ahead.

Dwight Stoll:
Yeah. The space is, one of the things that’s really exciting to me, especially about the long term, is that the building is so much more designed with flexibility in mind than it was in the past. So you know, one of my frustrations, I would say, when I came to Gustavus in 2008 is just how inflexible the spaces were, you know? A lot of furniture, fixtures, were sort of bolted to floors and walls. And if you wanted to change something, it was really difficult. And now, the vast majority of fixtures and equipment and infrastructure and the building is flexible. It’s on wheels or it’s easily movable. And I think that’s going to serve us really well.

And the last thing I would say is just the way that we’ve designed spaces is going to support so much better the way science is done now, which is highly collaborative. So in 1960, a typical lab experience would have been a student in front of a bench with a bunch of equipment. You did your thing and you hope that nobody made a mistake next door that was going to screw up what you were focusing on. These days, it’s… We, more and more, have students working in groups and teams. And the, just the way rooms are designed and in proximity and things like that and how students can use computers outside of a laboratory to control equipment inside of a laboratory. All these things are, sort of reflect the way science is done today.

So it’s… Yeah, it’s wonderful. And it’s… You know, as I’m telling prospective students these days, “It’s a wonderful time to be a science student at Gustavus.” For sure. No question about it.

Greg Kaster:
And wonderful is the word that comes to my mind. I’ve been through it just a few times, just to… You know, I’m passing through to visit a class or something. But just the space, the light, the airiness. The coffee, by the way. I’ll put in a plug for that.

Dwight Stoll:
Yeah. For sure.

Greg Kaster:
So yeah. I hope any prospective students listening will come and visit, if they haven’t already, for the Nobel Conference. Maybe they’ll be there in the fall. And if they’re interested in chemistry, seek you out for some superb mentoring.

Dwight, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much. Take care.

Dwight Stoll:
Okay. Thanks, Greg. Take care.


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