Susanne Lewis, Ph.D., serves as chair of the Natural and Physical Sciences Department, chemistry program director, professor of chemistry and adviser to OC’s chapter of the American Chemical Society (ACS). With the goal of becoming a college professor, Professor Lewis got her start in the role as an undergraduate lab assistant for an introductory chemistry lab course. Since then, she’s been a teacher and adviser in a number of positions, bringing that teaching experience as well as personal life experiences to her current roles.
What brought you to OC, and why do you love OC?
I came to OC in 2004 because I was interested in a role teaching at a small, liberal arts college. I had a really good connection with Provost Maria Davis, Ph.D.; Leah Knapp, D.V.M., professor of biology; and John Wilterding, Ph.D., professor of biology and chemistry, during my interview. Interestingly enough, my interview day was on Founders’ Day, so I’ve been to one more Founders’ Day program than the years I’ve been employed at the College. Even though it was scary to move 800 miles away from my hometown on the east coast when I was offered the position, I am glad that I took it. I love working with my colleagues and teaching the students that choose OC. Getting to see young adults mature over four years and then go off and make lives of their own is a very rewarding experience.
What is your favorite memory from your time at OC?
My favorite memories are watching the members of Gruen Chemistry Society participate in Chemistry Day at Impression 5 Science Center, compete at Battle of the Chem Clubs, and travel to ACS meetings. I get to see students shine as individuals, as well as see them visit new places and have new experiences during these opportunities.
Where do your passions for teaching and chemistry stem from?
I’m not really sure where my passion for teaching comes from other than I really enjoy being able to explain how things work in a way that people can understand. I feel like I have a knack of finding the right analogy for each student to help them get over the hurdle of a particular topic.
My passion for chemistry comes from my experience in high school. I had two great chemistry teachers, and I really liked learning chemistry. To me, it’s very logical, and I can see the patterns of how everything fits together. I know that’s not true for everyone, but once I can find a pattern, it’s a lot easier for me to remember things.
What is your teaching style like?
I guess I would consider my teaching style to be more “guide on the side” rather than “sage on the stage.” In my classes, I mostly use student-centered active learning and follow a method known as Process-Oriented Guided-Inquiry Learning (POGIL). POGIL uses a learning cycle that is based on exploring data or information followed by concept invention and applications. Most lecture-based courses and textbooks begin with defining concepts, then validating those concepts with data or additional information. With that method, students rarely get a chance to think about the data and derive concepts from those data. The style of student-centered active learning also models how scientists practice science every day. In the classroom, as the students are working in their groups, I tend to answer questions with a question to help the students come up with the solution on their own. By asking focused questions, I can help them be more confident in their answer as well as guide them to think about what the correct answer may be if they were incorrect initially.
What’s the average day in your role, or some of the unique things you are responsible for?
My average day involves working with students. I’m either in class, the lab or one-on-one meetings with students. I also have meetings with the other department faculty and department chairs on a regular basis. I am responsible for making sure our department budget is balanced, hiring work-study students, ordering supplies for the chemistry labs, making sure the other faculty can order the things they need for their classes and managing our chemical inventory. I am also the adviser for Gruen Chemistry Society, the College’s student chapter of the American Chemical Society. In that role, I’m responsible for making sure we remain an active chapter and help to coordinate the funding and travel for members to attend the spring ACS meeting to be recognized for our chapter activities and receive our award.
Why do you encourage students to attend OC?
The college I earned my undergraduate degree from gave me a second chance to prove that I could be a good student, and having a broad liberal arts education gave me the tools to go on to graduate school and earn my doctoral degree. I encourage students to attend OC because we give everyone an opportunity to show that they can be a good student, and we provide the same broad-based liberal arts education that teaches students the soft skills employers look for. I also highlight the small class sizes and the personal relationships between students and faculty or staff, which allows us to be able to write strong letters of recommendation for jobs or graduate schools. Students can also get involved in the many different student organizations or create their own if they are passionate about something that there isn’t already a club for.
What do you look forward to in your role?
I always look forward to opportunities to meet with prospective students, learn about why they are interested in OC and where they hope to see themselves once they graduate from college. I also enjoy bringing my students to events related to ACS and getting to know them as people rather than as just students.
What advice do you share with students and alumni?
The advice I share with students is to make sure that they ask questions when they don’t understand material and to not be afraid to go talk to a professor. We may seem scary at first, but we all want our students to do well in our classes. The advice I share with alumni is to network as much as possible. I’m just a phone call or email away if they need advice, a letter of reference or to share news about their life with.
What is an interesting or little-known fact about yourself?
A little-known fact is that I have a minor in political science, and an interesting fact is that I’m from New England and I don’t understand the fascination Michiganders have with olives. I had never heard of an olive burger before I moved here.
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