Allen Wu’17 and Andrew Stack’17
Dr. Elizabeth Bielinski teaches tenth grade Chemistry, Accelerated Chemistry, and eleventh/twelfth grade Advanced Chemistry. She is an alumnus of Bryn Mawr College, and she received her PH.D from Yale. Since it is end of the year, we thought it would be interesting to interview Dr. Bielinski who was new to the community in the beginning of the year. Through the interview we got to know how she feels about being in a brand new community, her road to becoming a scientist, as well as an amazing, vibrant teacher.
(Allen and Andrew: A/A, Dr. Bielinski: Dr.B)
A/A: How is teaching at Tower Hill Different than teaching at Yale?
Dr.B: First of all, I get to know my students better. At Yale, I did teach smallish classes, but most of my classes were with two to three hundred kids. They are just numbers. I also get to see my students in different settings. I go to sport events, concerts, plays, etc. I feel like I can know my students better. I have so much more freedom here. If I want to make my material more in depth–I can do that; if I want to cut something I don’t like from the curriculum–I can do it. As long as it fits in a reasonable curriculum.
A/A: Out of all the materials you added, which one is your favorite?
Dr.B: Alternative energy. We have to do that. It pains me that it’s not in our curriculum — there isn’t a class, or an unit or anything. I didn’t come into the school expecting to teach alternative energy, but my AP students wanted to do that, so we did.
A/A: Are you planning on extending this topic outside of the classroom, like talking to the middle school kids?
Dr.B: Yeah I would love to. But I am not sure about their curriculum.
A/A: Yeah, the kids in middle school probably will not understand the stuff we learned in AP Chemistry.
Dr.B: We don’t need to teach them the complex mechanics of global warming like we did in AP Chemistry. I think the middle school kids can look at the chemical equation and see carbon dioxide come out of the fossil fuel combustion. You just show them what is happening–how the arctic ice cap is melting, polar bears have no place to live, the temperature everywhere is rising . . . they can get that.
A/A: What’s your PhD thesis on?
Dr.B: The first part of my thesis is about alternative energy ideas, specifically the way to store the clean energy–hydrogen. I eventually found formic acid and methanol are good sources to store hydrogen.
In the second part of my thesis, I focus on how to make the reaction of formic acid, or methanol, release hydrogen, which is used as fuel. The answer is a transition metal catalyst, like iron. Eventually, I try to form a cycle to create hydrogen clean energy and capture CO2 from the combustion. Actually my friend gave me a drawing of my catalyst as a gift after my defense. It hangs on the wall in my classroom.
A/A: What’s your favorite compound.
Dr.B: Formic Acid.
A/A: Who is your favorite chemist?
Dr.B: Dead or Alive?
A/A: Let’s start with the dead.
Dr.B: Ok, it has to be Marie Curie. Because she’s awesome. The amount of sexism she had to deal with, and the time in which she worked, and the level of care and attention to detail required of her work–it was truly phenomenal.
And my favorite living chemist has to be Harry Gray. He’s a Professor at Cal Tech. He runs their solar cell department. He’s the father of the branch called bio-inorganic chemistry. And he’s the funniest and most brilliant man I have ever met. He’s also humble–he would talk to anybody. I met him when I was a first year grad student; I knew nothing. But he stopped in the middle of a party and talked to me for an hour about life and science.
A/A: Was becoming a chemist always your dream, or did you start out with another childhood career dream?
Dr.B: I always wanted to be a scientist when I was a kid, but I went through a lot of careers and settled down with chemistry. When I was really little, I wanted to be an astronomer. I was really obsessed with space. But I don’t know how that ended. After that my interest shifted to biology. I wanted to be a geneticist, then a biologist. Then when I went to high school and took chemistry my sophomore year, I said that’s it–that’s what I wanted to do. But then I had the problem of deciding what I was going to do in chemistry. I thought I wanted to be a professor and do research. However, professors at research institutions do very little teaching. Their focus is on research and running a lab. They employ many people: postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads, all of whom do the day-to-day research in a lab. If I was going to be a research chemist, I would have worked in industry because then you actually spend your days doing the work. As a professor, there is very little time spent with others because you are always in the lab, and there is a lot of time spent on administrative details such as grant writing. It didn’t fit my personality.
A/A: What’s your favorite memory at Tower Hill this year?
Dr.B: I don’t think I have a specific moment that is my favorite. But over the year I feel like I’m part of Tower Hill. I remember when I first came here, I felt like everyone was looking at me because I was new. But at some point I felt like people wouldn’t look at me like I was new but looked at me as a part of the community. That’s really what I needed.
A/A: Now, we are going to give you pairs of things, you have to choose one over the other in 5 seconds.
A/A: Iron or Sodium
A/A: Chlorine gas or Fluorine gas
Dr.B: Fluorine gas
A/A: Hydrofluoric acid or Formic acid
Dr.B: Formic acid
A/A: Acid or base
A/A: Titration or distillation
Dr.B: Distillation, (A/A: Why? Dr.B: Titration acquires too much work.)
A/A: Diamond or graphite
A/A: Physics or biology
A/A: Chinchilla or cat
A/A: Prom or homecoming
A/A: Gray’s anatomy or ER