Portrait on Main Hall Green: Stefan Debbert (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different faculty member every two weeks — same questions, different answers.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Stefan Debbert knows a thing or two about inclusive pedagogy.

The Lawrence University associate professor of chemistry is leading the way in reshaping the school’s teachings in the sciences to better engage students of all backgrounds and identities. When Lawrence was one of 33 schools in the country selected in 2018 for a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to implement its Inclusive Excellence Initiative, Debbert was tabbed as the project director.

A member of the Chemistry faculty since 2007, Debbert has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a Ph.D. from Cornell University.

We fired six questions at him as part of our faculty series.

IN THE CLASSROOM

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

Every student should know that I deeply respect the work they’re doing, in and out of my class. From the synthesis of a new molecule or the construction of a tight two-page essay, nothing we try to do in my classes is easy, so it’s important that students feel like they can ask questions and make mistakes without incurring judgment from me. Our students work really hard, and I’m always impressed by their development as scientists and as people during their years at Lawrence. 

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

Right now, I’m excited to help lead Lawrence’s efforts to make our introductory science classes the best, most effective, most inclusive, most engaging, most life-changing experiences we can offer. That’s a lot of commas, but with our $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Inclusive Excellence program, we are aiming high. We’re rethinking our intro courses in biology, chemistry, and physics from the ground up so that every student is included, challenged and supported from the very beginning. We’re putting a lot of work into this, with help from a lot of people, students included, and we’re really excited about the possibilities.

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

I really appreciate how my job at Lawrence has led me to chase my passions, and am constantly surprised by how my day-to-day job changes. My organic chemistry lab training led me to a job where I, on occasion, make new compounds, cultivate cancer cells, write research grants, teach chemistry, teach drug development, teach poetry and art and Shakespeare, work with and advise students from new freshmen to graduating seniors, manage a research group, chair a department, help develop institutional policy, play instruments in class, etc., etc., very much etc. I think the 2005-era, new-Ph.D., slightly-better-shape version of me would be very surprised that I’d be doing all that — and that I’d do it less than an hour from my hometown of Fond du Lac.

I feel like I am constantly challenged to grow as an educator, a scientist and a person. It’s difficult, it’s always humbling, and I really appreciate it.

OUT OF THE CLASSROOM

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing? 

Teaching as a hobby, probably. Alternately, I could parlay my career as a Parks-and-Rec youth baseball coach into a position with the Brewers’ management, I assume.

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus? And why?

I have a few! My lab, obviously (Steitz 226), is awesome, but I also like hanging out by my favorite organic chemistry books in the Mudd Library (QD 262 4 LIFE). My daughter’s favorite spots, when she was little, were the skull display case in Briggs and the ramp at the bottom of Steitz (perfect for scootering). Finally, I like the gym at Buchanan-Kiewit, the site of lots of soccer highlights (and hilarious lowlights) over the years. 

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

My favorite book is Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table … wait, come back! It’s a memoir, and it’s really good! It deals with the author’s life as a Jewish chemistry student in WWII Italy, his experience in a concentration camp, and his life as a chemist thereafter. It’s full of his appreciation for the tactile sensuality of chemistry, and it really speaks to me. 

One recording: Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (the unabridged version), or if I’m feeling more chill, Chet Baker Sings.

One film: Sorry, no answer on this one.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu