Johns Hopkins chemistry teacher finds formula for success in class Carnegie Foundation names Principe state's top professor

October 09, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

At the Johns Hopkins University, you're more likely to find someone who has won a Nobel Prize than a prestigious award for teaching well. So what is Lawrence Principe doing picking up the Maryland Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching?

"I'm doing exactly what I want to do," said Principe, sitting in his cluttered office in Mergenthaler Hall a few days before the award was formally bestowed in a ceremony yesterday.

Principe's enthusiasm for teaching -- and his near-guru status among students -- belies the reputation of Hopkins as a research-oriented place where professors emerge reluctantly from dusty library stacks or high-tech laboratories to mumble a few random thoughts to a classroom of undergraduates.

Making Principe's award more remarkable is that he teaches organic chemistry, a requirement for premedical majors that is generally approached by students with the enthusiasm of Himalayan mountain climbers about to cross a bad icefall.

"A guy who can make that subject interesting is a great teacher," said Stewart Leslie, chairman of the history of science department who, when he was an assistant dean, nominated Principe for the Carnegie award, which dates from 1981 and honors one professor from each state and four nationally.

"I refuse to teach it as a memorization course," Principe said of his approach to organic chemistry, often presented as a pile of facts and formulas. "I try to teach its elemental principles that can be applied throughout the subject. It comes from being a real fan of Plato," he said.

Not too many teachers of organic chemistry admit to being fans of Plato, but not too many of them have two doctorates -- in chemistry and in the history of science.

Principe seems to be on a one-man crusade to close the gap that separates the humanities and sciences, to return to the Greek ideal of scholars, when philosophers were scientists and vice versa.

Principe, 36, a native of New Jersey and a graduate of the University of Delaware, came to Hopkins in 1988 after receiving his doctorate in chemistry from Indiana University. Fascinated by the subject but turned off by the grant-grubbing world of big-time science, Principe decided to pursue a second doctorate.

To support himself, he signed up with the Hopkins chemistry department, teaching the organic chemistry laboratory, then the subject itself. With a manner that is at once meticulous and excited, conscientious and concerned, Principe was an immediate hit.

His sections of courses would be standing room only as students with other instructors stopped by for the hour. Leslie said Principe won so many on-campus teaching awards that the school changed the rules to keep him from winning every year.

"He didn't get popular by being an easy grader," Leslie said, noting his classes average a B-minus. "Students see him as challenging but fair."

When Principe received his history of science doctorate in 1996, he got a joint appointment in that department and chemistry.

"I would be really disappointed to lose either half of my world," he said.

Principe said advances were made through the specialization that has become characteristic of academic life -- "it allowed us to gain a lot of knowledge" -- but that too often that knowledge is not fully understood as it relates to people's lives.

His desire to fight such specialization is evident in his scholarship. His doctoral dissertation -- just published as a book -- is about the 17th-century scientist Robert Boyle. Often called the father of chemistry, Boyle is best known for his law that the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to its pressure.

Most Boyle scholarship depicts him as a rational counterpoint to the alchemists who were his contemporaries. But Principe disputes that dichotomy, showing Boyle's chemical advances arose from his work in alchemy, driven by his religious beliefs.

"What you have to understand about Larry is that he is not just a great teacher, he is also a very important scholar," said Robert Kargon of the history of science department.

Principe sees his research and teaching not in conflict, but as two sides of the same coin.

"It's a question of excitement," he said. "If you're excited about the material you're working on, you're excited about talking about it as well. Students pick up if the teacher is bored."

The breadth of Principe's interests was evident in a section of the history of science survey he is teaching this semester.

He opened the class handing out a small item he found on the Internet about an auction of an Archimedes palimpsest manuscript. That led to a discussion about the beginnings of paper, the making of papyrus and why it is no longer grown in the Nile -- something about ancient Egyptians trying to keep the market cornered.

Then there was the transition to vellum and parchment, the re-use of older manuscripts and the recovery of the original work beneath later writings. Such recovered manuscripts are called palimpsests.

When he teaches organic chemistry, Principe says, he works hard to convey his enthusiasm for chemistry to premeds.

"At the beginning of the semester, I ask how many people are really interested in chemistry," Principe said. "Out of 200 people, get maybe two or three hands. My greatest success comes when I can convince somebody that chemistry is a field worth pursuing, that it's not going to kill them."

One of those successes is David Klein, who, in a letter supporting Principe's nomination for the Carnegie teaching prize, says his life was changed when he signed up for organic chemistry in 1993.

"Dr. Principe instilled in me a passion for academia," Klein wrote. "I am currently following in his footsteps as a graduate student of organic chemistry and will receive my Ph.D. from UCLA in one year. He taught me that all subjects are fascinating. To those who have had the fortune of being his student, he is the paradigm of academic excellence."

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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