By Steve Koppes
Photo by Chris Strong

Gregory Engel focuses his research on leveraging precise theoretical predictions to predict, identify, and characterize conical intersection structures, with the ultimate goal of rationally controlling photoreactivity. His research group intends first to employ laser spectroscopy to watch the reactions, then to invoke theoretical modeling to understand the data and to locate new substrates.

You’ve compiled an impressive list of awards since you joined the Chicago faculty in 2007, and even before. Now you’re receiving a Quantrell. What factors have contributed to your success?

This is simple. The University of Chicago is an absolutely fantastic place to do research, and the reason is the students. It’s not my hands on the knobs in the lab; it’s my students’. I get wonderful graduate students, wonderful postdocs, and wonderful undergrads.

Teaching is fun for the same reason. It’s a truly wonderful feeling to walk into a classroom with a hundred people who are smarter than you are, albeit a bit younger and less experienced. Having wonderful students in the lab and interacting with them in the classroom creates the perfect platform from which to launch a scientific career; the University has provided me with everything I need.

What undergraduate courses do you teach?

I teach General Chemistry and Physical Chemistry, and I’ve taught the Introductory General Chemistry course in the fall both at the honors level and the regular level, which is still quite advanced at UChicago. My students include both majors and non-majors.

I also teach the Experimental Physical Chemistry lab to upper-level undergraduates. This is almost an engineering course. They’re learning the skills they need to do research in physical chemistry laboratories, from lasers to Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to mass spectrometry. They’re building the instrument themselves. What makes this unique and challenging is one student works on an instrument at a time.

It’s just like in a real research lab in grad school. Things break, and they have to fix it. The teaching assistants are there for advice and safety, but it’s really the students one-on-one with the instruments. That’s something you don’t usually get as an undergraduate.

Who were the professors who most inspired you as an undergraduate?

There are two whom I’ve tried to emulate: Maitland Jones and Jeff Schwartz at Princeton.

Maitland taught class in a style that I’ve come very much to like. You set a problem, and you ask the students what’s going on. They consult with one another and they offer ideas, and you referee. I enjoy this because it forces students to think about the science in the way the first scientists who solved this problem would’ve thought about it. You’ve got the same data. You’re trying to figure out what it means. It also puts students in touch with the human side of science. Science is about discovery, and this is an option in the classroom.

And Jeff Schwartz, he forced people to talk about science, to stand in front of their peers and explain a problem, and then argue for their position. This has stood me in good stead, and I try to incorporate that into many of my classes. Students interact and get different perspectives. Sometimes those perspectives are correct and offer great ideas. Sometimes they’re wrong, and the class has to sort that out. This is the way science works in the real world.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

A professor may be responsible for a course, but an inspired group of graduate teaching assistants do much of the teaching. The quality of education here flows from the graduate students and from Meishan Zhao (senior lecturer and laboratory director for General Chemistry). That really is quite important to mention. The chemistry TAs are very dedicated, as they are throughout the Physical Sciences Division. While I’m very honored and humbled to get this award, a lot of the credit goes to the graduate students.

Originally published on June 4, 2012.