Professor Tom Varberg in his laser lab.

On the third floor of the Olin-Rice Science Center, there is an unassuming gray door that looks just like every other door in that wing of the building, except for the off-white sign near its top, whose block red letters read: “LASER IN USE.”

The sign is switched off today, however, as chemistry professor Tom Varberg is simply showing off the contents of his lab, pointing out the array of high-powered lasers mounted on the room’s central tabletop.

“We can configure these mirrors to redirect the laser beam,” he says, “before it goes into this chamber,” where the light strikes the metal-containing free radical molecules he studies, experiments that form the basis of the ongoing research program he’s built over 25 years at Macalester.

When he first arrived at the college, this lab did not exist. “There wasn’t even a set of tools,” he says, “like screwdrivers and that. I literally started with an empty room.” There were no research labs, because, as with most undergraduate institutions at the time, the professors were focused on teaching. As a young faculty member, he was tasked with transitioning the department to a teacher-scholar model, where professors continued to do research over the long arcs of their careers.

So, in addition to teaching a handful of courses every year, expanding the curriculum, and serving as the chemistry chair from 2001 to 2006, Varberg has also worked to build a top-level research program. According to his departmental colleague, Professor Paul Fischer, that last task is one of the things that distinguishes both Varberg and Macalester. As Fischer explains, the challenge of maintaining a research program at an undergraduate institution (without grad students or post-docs to work on it full-time) lies in the design: “You have to pick projects that undergraduates can participate in; you have to have a project where you can get a critical mass of results without devoting all your time to the project; and then you also have to have a project where people will want to learn about it, so you’ll be able to publish the work.”

Varberg’s research—experiments studying the fundamental properties of free radicals, reactive particles that can cause chemical changes everywhere from the human body to Earth’s atmosphere—checks out in all three categories. “It’s a really neat way that he’s crafted his research over the years,” Fischer adds, “to hit all of the boxes, and be able to sustain it.”

Each year, Varberg hires a team of two students to stay at Macalester for the summer, learning about the lasers and then performing experiments on new molecules. For those 10 weeks, they become less like professor and students, and more like co-investigators, together “doing” the investigative work of chemistry. “By doing, I mean going in and doing new chemistry, figuring out things that no one has ever seen before,” Varberg says. “That’s where the real understanding comes in.”

For students, those 10 weeks can be a transformative experience, providing them with insight into the life and work of a chemistry graduate student, and bolstering their portfolios should they choose to apply. That was certainly the case for Akif Tezcan ’95, Varberg’s first research assistant at Macalester. “The summer went really, really well, we did work that we ended up publishing later, my first publication ever,” says Tezcan, now a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California–San Diego. “I asked lots of questions, because I didn’t know anything very early on—I learned everything from Tom.”

Between the success of former students like Tezcan, the nearly 25 years of continuous funding from the National Science Foundation (forming the bulk of the $1.4 million in funding he’s brought to the college over his career), and the steady clip of publications in prestigious journals co-authored with his undergraduate assistants, colleagues point to Varberg and his work as a model for the department. “We look to him as the example, in terms of trying to do both teaching and research well,” says Fischer. This partly explains why he and other members of the chemistry department nominated Varberg for the Janet Andersen Lecture Award, presented by a consortium of 13 peer colleges and universities, which he won last year. “I think he’s been an inspirational person in the department in that way.”

For his part, Varberg credits his motivation to his own lack of research opportunities as an undergrad, and his understanding now of the value in hands-on learning. But back in the lab in Olin-Rice, showing off the equipment he’s acquired over three decades, it’s clear enough how much he’s driven by his own curiosity.

Several digital screens rest above the table that supports the laser systems—it’s here where, after hours of testing and number-crunching, computers display the data results from his experiments. “When the data appears here,” Varberg says, pointing to a screen, “I like to remind my students, ‘We’re the first people in the universe to see that.’ It’s pretty incredible.”

April 9 2018

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