By Steve Koppes
Photo by Robert Kozloff

When a PhD student in Chemistry learns that he has been selected to receive a Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching, he might describe his reaction in a humorously unexpected way.

“I released some serotonin from my raphe nuclei, experienced it with my G-protein-coupled receptors, then reuptook it to my axon terminals,” says Anton Sinitskiy, the student in question. But Sinitskiy’s humorous and distinctive way of looking at the world may help explain how he earned the honor as a General Chemistry teaching assistant.

Take, for example, a Facebook posting in which he invited friends to join him in celebrating his “jubilee” on March 9, 2013 at 10:31:40 p.m. Central Standard Time. It was the moment at which he turned one billion seconds old. Seconds are, after all, the basic scientific unit of time, not the calendar year.

“This rare and unique moment signifies an important milestone in my metabolism, which seems even more impressive when you express it in femtoseconds, and proves that it’s better to observe me empirically than to try to model and predict,” he wrote.

Humor aside, Sinitskiy strives to impart to his students a balance between pragmatism and aspiration for science. There is, after all, far more to the undergraduate experience than earning As and learning only what’s needed to perform well in a chosen profession.

“I try to show my students that fundamental knowledge and wide expertise would help them to find correct solutions on exams more quickly, and that lots of questions discussed in our course were directly related to practice, even though it wasn’t evidence from textbooks,” he says.

As a high school student, Sinitskiy represented Russia at two International Chemistry Olympiads, coming away with a gold and a silver medal and valuable experience for a future graduate teaching assistant.

“There I learned to work under stressful conditions, to be self-confident, and many serious and anecdotal stories about chemistry, which I can now share with my students here at UChicago. But the most important thing is that I met many friends there with whom I share many values in our love of science and of life.”

Sinitskiy recently created a Facebook page for International Science Olympiad participants. “Being in this creative medium of Olympiads constantly challenges me and helps me stay interesting to other people, I hope.”

Originally published on June 3, 2013.