Tucci Makes Chemistry Lovable

With his office door on the first floor of the Science Center always open, it’s obvious Gregory Tucci loves talking to students. As the leader of introductory science classes such as Life and Physical Sciences A and Physical Sciences 11, he has become the face of Harvard’s Chemistry department. However, few, including Tucci himself, would have guessed that he would become so active in this field. The Harvard Crimson sat down with the Senior Lecturer in Chemistry and Chemical Biology to talk about chemistry and teaching.

The Harvard Crimson [THC]: Why did you become interested in chemistry?Gregory Tucci [GC]: When I applied to college, I loved biology. In high school, I took all biology courses. I even did a senior project on snails and how they grew in these aquariums. I would put them in different environments to see how the snails were doing. I thought biology was the best thing in the world and I loved it. Then, my guidance counselor told me that everyone loves biology and don’t put it down on your college applications because it makes it harder to get in. He said that nobody likes chemistry. He said to put chemistry down and that way I’d be much more likely to get into college. Now, that sounded like a great idea. So I put down chemistry. Then, when I got to college, I had a teacher whose name is Oliver Ludwig—which is kind of a great name don’t you think? He was the best teacher I had ever had in my entire life. I understood everything that he said and I fell in love with chemistry. And that’s how I became a chemistry major.

THC: Do you have any advice for students headed into careers for science?GC: I think you can do so many more things with a science degree now, in 2012, than you could do in 1989 when I graduated with my degree. You have many more possibilities...people who have these degrees have a huge range of capabilities. It is nice to have all these opportunities and see the things you could do out there. Enjoy all the opportunities you have.

THC: What would you tell an incoming freshman who is  terrified of chemistry?GC: I would tell them not to be terrified of chemistry! Everyone in this department knows that people are terrified of chemistry. Think about it: You go to a party, people ask what you do and you say “chemistry,” and they take a step back and make this face. It happens every time. So, we’re well aware of this and we don’t want this to be happening. We want you to love chemistry. We understand that some people are terrified and we want to make you love the subject.

THC: When people imagine chemistry class, they think of amazing live demonstrations. Which is your favorite?GC: You know what? My favorite demonstration is one—the demonstration staff here do it, so we have to have a plug for them—where you take liquid nitrogen and put it into a plastic soda bottle. You put the plastic soda bottle in warm water and put a giant trash can on top of it. Once the liquid becomes a gas, it takes the trash can and sends it up to the ceiling of the Science Center. It is awesome. You don’t expect it’s happening and you don’t see anything until the trash can goes “Wooo” and just launches up. It is a great demonstration. I love it.

-Staff writer Fatima Mirza can be reached at fmirza@college.harvard.edu

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