Cultivating Wonder

Five questions with Megan Gessel, associate professor of chemistry

When she’s not cultivating squash and cabbage in her garden, Megan Gessel is tending to the next generation of scientists. As associate professor of chemistry, she recognizes the immense role that student researchers play at a small school like Puget Sound. Gessel not only aims to help students understand this important role they play, but also encourages them to pursue research by making chemistry more than a series of lectures and truly a journey of discovery.

Q: What classes do you teach? What subjects do you enjoy most? 
A: I teach physical biochemistry, analytical chemistry, and general chemistry. My favorite topics are properties of gases—there are just so many fun demonstrations—and thermodynamics. Another favorite topic of mine is telling general chemistry students about stellar nucleosynthesis and the origin of the elements. We are all stardust!

Q: You have a particular interest in promoting student scientists. Why do you think it's important for students to be involved in research? 
A: Research is such a valuable part of a student’s education, and faculty members spend a lot of time training them in instrumental methods, lab techniques, data analysis, and writing. Part of my role as a science educator is to help students grow as new researchers. I try to encourage students to participate in research; there are many students with great potential who never realize that the opportunity is there. I also like to talk about student research when it intersects with concepts that are being covered in class. The next time I teach general chemistry, I’m hoping to invite senior undergraduate researchers to come and give short talks to the students in the class.

Q: How do you approach teaching?  
A: I don’t think lecturing is terribly effective. I really like to emphasize a feeling of wonder in my classes. Many people think of chemistry as a very logical, concrete subject, but it is actually very abstract. I like to try to get students to understand the invisible, molecular basis of nature and how it underlies our everyday experiences.

Q: Have you found that remote learning has forced you to be more creative? How?
A: I think some of the most creative work in chemistry has come with designing labs for virtual learning. In general chemistry, for example, we decided to have students do experiments at home. In the first lab, students created their own spectrophotometer (an instrument that measures how much light a substance absorbs) and discussed their instrument design and data with their peers. The faculty wanted our chemistry students to grapple with challenges of experimental design, troubleshooting, data analysis, and problem-solving, even if they were doing it at home.

Q: Tell me about yourself outside of the classroom. Do you find any hobbies crossing over into your teaching?
A: I have two young children (3 and 7 years old), so that keeps me pretty busy during the weekends. When I do find time to do things, I love to garden. I’m not very good at it, but I love being outside and it’s been especially therapeutic to do the physical work of gardening during the pandemic. I also have recently gotten back into sewing. It’s a nice blend of creative work and analytical work. I’ve especially enjoyed learning about the science behind different fabrics and how it affects their properties.


By Anneli Haralson
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Dec. 13, 2020