Adam E. Cohen

With cropped blond hair, a lanky frame and a contagious smile, Assistant Professor Adam E. Cohen ’01 hardly looks like a “mad scientist.” In fact, at first glance, this 29-year-old appears more like an undergraduate than a professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Physics.

Though Cohen has a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Cambridge, and another one in Experimental Physics from Stanford, he is more inclined to boast about his goofy videos on complex scientific topics than about his pedigree. One such video shows particles under the influence of an electrical waveform synchronized to the beat of “Move It, Move It.” Bopping his head to the beat, Cohen successfully pulls off the seemingly unthinkable: a techno/physics fusion.

Cohen’s youthful spirit permeates into the classroom, where undergraduate and graduate students marvel at the energy of this up-and-coming science star. Anna V. Shneidman ’09, a student in Cohen’s fall term Chemistry 163: “Frontiers in Biophysics,” noted his “enthusiasm and childlike wonder with scientific questions.”

Cohen launched his teaching career at Harvard last year and began teaching Chemistry 163 in the fall of 2008 to a group of sixteen students. Currently, he is taking a break from the classroom to focus on his lab work. The Cohen lab is devoted to investigating molecules and cells using physical tools. Tucked away in the maze-like halls of Mallinckrodt, his lab is the ultimate science nerd’s dream, filled with gadgets, robots, and a 2500 pound table floating on nitrogen filled air sacs.

While some may consider his area of expertise arcane, Cohen’s admirers praise his exceptional ability to explain complex material to the average person. His older sister, Zoe S. Cohen ’98 applauds his ability to translate his esoteric specialty into “something that makes it interesting and fun for other people.”

Though Cohen’s age may make him particularly able to identify so well with his students, his passion for his work seems to resonate above all else.

With a twinkle in his eye, Cohen recounts his scientific endeavors from childhood—which extended way beyond the average basement lab kit.

“I built an electronics lab in my bedroom, most of which has been moved into my lab here,” Cohen says.

He gushes about one of his favorite creations, a device that applies physics to allow his eye movements to maneuver his computer cursor. And that one, he built before college.

Taking a break from Chemistry 163, Cohen says that his next foray into the classroom will be in the spring of 2010 as a professor for the introductory chemistry and physics course, Physical Sciences 1: “Chemical Bonding, Energy, and Reactivity: an Introduction to the Physical Sciences.” Accustomed to a lax grading system given Chemistry 163’s largely graduate student population, Cohen admits, “I’ll probably have to be more of a hard-ass.”

But while a bevy of premeds may get to reap the benefits of Cohen’s next venture, his former students lament Cohen’s absence from Chemistry 163. According to Bradlee D. Nelms, a graduate student who took the course, “Chem 163 was one of the best classes I’ve taken at Harvard.”