Tackling complex concepts with his students, Jonathan Ellman brings ‘joy’ to the process of discovery

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Jonathan Ellman is this year's winner of the Dylan Hixon ’88 Prize for Teaching Excellence in Natural Sciences and Mathematics. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

In nominating Jonathan Ellman for the Dylan Hixon ’88 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics, at least two of his students use the word “joy” to describe their experience with their teacher. Said one: “While the subject matter is certainly challenging, Professor Ellman’s organized teaching style made learning organic chemistry a joy.” Another said, “Interacting with him is always a joy. I sometimes feel as if there is nothing that he cannot explain.” Ellman says he hopes to impart the idea that no matter how difficult it may be to solve a problem, there is both pleasure in and value to the process, even when one is tempted to give up.

Course: “Organic Chemistry”

What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?

I’ve been very fortunate to teach sophomore and freshmen undergraduates in my “Organic Chemistry” courses. What really excites me about teaching this group of students is that they come in with just an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm, and that’s not just for the course material. What I’ve particularly enjoyed is that they tell me about what their plans are for the future — their aspirations. They really plan on making a difference, and it’s exciting to see what they are going to accomplish.

Why is it important to study what you teach?

Chemistry is known as the central science. It’s really involved in all aspects of our daily lives. Organic chemistry, in particular, is the molecular basis by which life works. If we think about it from a practical standpoint, all drugs are organic in nature; they interact with biological targets on a molecular level. They are prepared through organic chemistry. If we think about what’s in this room — the table is natural organic material; the upholstery and the chairs, these are synthetic organic materials. So it’s really integral to all aspects of life and society.

If there’s one thing you want your students to learn from you, what would that be?

Chemistry is a challenging subject, and like a lot of challenging subjects, you learn new material and different types of concepts you are not familiar with. So it’s really important to work through problems to gain an understanding of that material and be able to apply that material. In new sections, trying to learn and apply new material can be really challenging. Sometimes after looking through notes, reading the assigned material, and looking through different problems, it’s still not possible to solve a problem that you’re tackling. At some point it might be necessary, essentially, to give up, ask for help, or look up the answer. But at that time, it’s important not to be discouraged because that process of trying to solve the problem really helps and benefits you in understanding the material and being able to apply the material. Maybe it didn’t work for that problem, but it will benefit you. It won’t have been wasted as you move forward with the course and with the subject matter. I think that’s true of the course I teach and of other courses with challenging subject matter as well.

What do your students teach you?

Particularly right now with all of the activities going on — presidential elections and what not — I think as we all get older it’s easy to become more cynical. The students who come in, they are very enthusiastic, particularly these freshmen and sophomore students. They want to make a difference, and I think they have an interest and the wherewithal to tackle tough problems, so it actually makes me more positive about the world. The tendency as I get older is to become less enthusiastic or optimistic, but they teach me to be optimistic.

What advice would you give a Yale student about his or her time here?

Yale students all come in with lots of energy, lots of excitement about exploring different activities, organizations, and subject matter. This is all great; it’s really good. But sometimes what I see is that students take on so much that they just become exhausted. They’re spread too thin, and they are no longer having fun. So my advice would be a little bit of caution: It’s great to be enthusiastic, to want to tackle lots of things, but keep in mind that there’s only so much that you can physically do at any one time.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,