Analyzing Chemists

Article by Shreya Balaji, Ananya Purwar, and Aanya Pratapneni.
Photos by Josaphat Ngoga and Mikayla Mann, as well as courtesy of Prof. HC and Prof. Kromer.

Harvey Mudd College has one of the top undergraduate chemistry programs in the nation. We wanted to learn more about what inspired two visiting profs to get into the field of chemistry, their current research, their opinions on the new Core curriculum, and also some fun facts about them!

The quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity.

Q&A With Prof. HC

Prof. Alicia O. Hernandez-Castillo
Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Ph.D., Purdue University

Could you introduce yourself to the Mudd community?

I’m Prof. HC. I was originally born in France, but my mom is from Mexico. I did my bachelor’s in Mexico City, my Ph.D. in the U.S. at Purdue University, and then my postdoc in Berlin. I also have a bachelor’s in music for piano and a master’s in musical composition because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. And then eventually, I realized that I actually wanted to do science. After my postdoc, I realized I liked teaching and research, so academia seemed like a good place for me. I wanted a research-focused place, and Harvey Mudd really fits what I like because I don’t do standard chemistry. I do something in between engineering, physics, and chemistry.

Where did you live before coming to HMC?

I did my postdoc in Berlin before coming here. I spent three and a half years in Berlin; it’s a really cool city and has a lot of art. I love modern art. We lived on the outskirts of Berlin, near the border between Berlin and Brandenburg, really close to the river and the bridge where they exchange the spies in the movie “Bridge of Spies.”

How do you like Mudd so far?

I love it. I absolutely love it. It’s the dream place to work. I’m not kidding. I love interacting with the students. I love teaching the students. I love how participative and excited about learning you all are and all your energy and your questions. And I love the fact that you’re always excited even at 8 a.m. in the morning, and that you can match my energy most of the time. That’s literally my favorite part. My second favorite is the Machine Shop and the Makerspace.

How did you become interested in physical chemistry?

I actually didn’t know I wanted to be a chemist; I thought I was going to be a musician. In my last year of my bachelor’s, I got a fellowship to go to Juilliard, so I went to Boston for a year. And when I was in my last semester of Juilliard, I realized that there were people that were amazing, and I was okay, but I was never going to be amazing. And I needed to figure out what I was actually going to make money out of. I have always been good at science, so I got into chemistry, and I was like, “I’m going to be a chemist.” Then I got into the chemistry lab and I was like, “I’m so bad.” I was struggling really hard, but I had picked it, and I couldn’t change it, right? I went from music to science; I couldn’t go home and be like, “Mom, I think I’m bad at another thing.” So I was stuck with it and would have to try it. And then I took physical chemistry and thought, “Well, this is boring, but I’m good at it.” Then, I took quantum mechanics. The spectroscopy part of the class – how light interacts with matter, and the fact that the molecules talk to you – seemed unbelievable. When Isawasignalinalabforthefirsttime,Ifeltasif the molecules were talking to me. And I can’t shut up, and the molecules also don’t shut up. I was like, “Yeah, this is my thing.” I just found my thing.

How do you think music fits in with chemistry?

Music is something I’ve always enjoyed. And the way I see it in chemistry is in the waves. I’m always interested in the way that the acoustics of things work; for example, the way a music room is acoustically designed to keep sound waves out. We have to cover our spectrometer chamber with a material that can keep the microwaves out, so I’m always curious, how do we use the material for that? My research is about how molecules resonate, so my brain is always trying to figure out what the molecules are listening to.

What music have you been playing recently?

I mostly play classical music now, because I don’t have enough time to play anything else. Classical music was hammered into my brain, mostly because of classes, but I also really like Joe Hisaishi, who composed for the Studio Ghibli movies. I love Studio Ghibli, so when I have a chance, I sometimes go through the music from those movies. I really enjoy those pieces. I don’t compose much nowadays, but sometimes I go through old compositions. During my postdoc, I composed a few plays for a friend that has a theater company in Spain, but I’ve barely played anything since I started this job. I need more hours in a day.

Do you have any hobbies or talents outside of chemistry and music?

I don’t have a lot of talents, but I do have hobbies. I love running; I run every day. I haven’t run as much this semester, but I’ve run a few half marathons in the past. The longest I’ve run is 17 miles. [My dog] Hamilton is off-leash, so he runs more since he goes back and forth. I also really enjoy playing with him. I’ve always really liked animals. When I was a kid, I knew all the fun facts about animals, and dogs in particular. I also like reading a lot. I’m currently reading “It Starts With Us” by Colleen Hoover.

What cool things are you working on in your lab?

A microspectrometer. The analogy is that we’re yelling at the molecules by sending a lot of power, and then the molecules are whispering back to us. The signals that we receive from the molecules aren’t super high, so we need to develop ways to listen to and record them. I think the way we see the spectroscopy of matter is beautiful: we’re using the same waves that your microwave uses to heat food, but we’re targeting the gas phase instead of the condensed liquid phase. In the condensed phase, your molecules are trapped, so you just have this little dance with your water molecules. But in the gas phase, the molecules can freely rotate. And we see that energy difference between them, and it tells us exactly where the atoms are positioned and the bond lengths and angles between all of them.

What are five songs or pieces of music that you’re listening to right now?

“Giant Steps” – John Coltrane
“Gimme Shelter” – Rolling Stones
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” – Leopold Stokowski and Philadelphia Orchestra
“Huapango” – Alondra de la Parra and Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas
“Out of the Woods” – Taylor Swift

Q&A With Prof. HC

Prof. Matthew Kromer
Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

What does a typical day in your life look like?

I’m actually a very habitual person, so it’s almost identical every single day. I wake up, walk my dog, and then make coffee. Then I drop my dog off to daycare, and I bike to campus. Depending on the day, I either go teach, prep for teaching, or prep for research. At the end of the day, around 5:30 p.m., I bike home, pick up my dog from daycare, and then make dinner. Depending on the day, I might do more teaching prep or grade or just chill out and watch TV or something. Then, I go to bed every night at 9 p.m. I’m very habitual about that.

What made you choose chemistry?

When I finished high school, I was not very academically focused. I just applied to the closest college to where I lived, and went there. I chose to study biochemistry because it was my best subject in high school. At the time, I wanted to be a pharmacist, believe it or not, so I decided to do biochemistry, then go to pharmacy school. But during my sophomore year of undergrad, I started research in a biology lab, and I got hooked on research. And then I went to grad school for electrochemistry because I really like chemistry related to energy conversion, energy storage, and addressing issues with sustainability.

As a chemistry professor, what is your opinion on the changes to the Core courses in chemistry?

I like the changes. Although I find it challenging to teach the amount of material given in Chemistry in the Modern World in a single semester, I also agree with a lot of the structural changes to the course. We’re able to go over more information in the plenary sessions. Then the recitation sections are great for doing the group work that we did in Chem23A and Chem23B. My favorite thing about the new Core chemistry is that lab and lecture correlate and
build off each other really well. It is really rewarding for students to learn stuff in lecture and then go actually do it in lab. So, I’m really happy that there’s a stronger correlation between lab and lecture now.

As a visiting professor for the last few years, what have you thought about your experience at Mudd?

It’s great. I don’t want to leave. I’ve grown so, so much as an instructor from being here because the students are really great. It’s a really supportive environment. In terms of faculty, there are lots of great opportunities for me to learn from colleagues and the Division of Student Affairs and Office of Academic Affairs on how to more appropriately teach students. It’s been super awesome. I really, really have enjoyed it.

What are the pros and cons of working at such a small school?

At bigger universities, it’s way harder to find the amount of student engagement and interaction that I get at Mudd. At other schools, I find it’s very easy to sort of get lost in a sea of students. It’s more difficult to develop mentor-mentee relationships with them. At Mudd, it’s definitely so much easier. I feel like I’ve been able to help students become better scientists and better professionals, and help them learn about possible careers.

What are your plans after Mudd?

Right now, I’m on the job market. I’m applying to tech positions at other smaller universities that are hiring tenure-track chemistry faculty. I’m also applying to some other universities that are a little bit bigger, but are looking for a teaching-focused professor. The idea there is that I would do prettymuch everything I’m currently doing now, like mentoring research students. And it would be at a slightly bigger institution compared to Mudd, so instead of 900 students, it would be 10,000 or so students.

Word has it that you traveled in a van with your dog for a year. What was that experience like?

After finishing graduate school, I was really burnt out. I just did not really have a lot of motivation to do a postdoc or keep doing academic research. So, I bought a van in February 2020. When COVID hit in March 2020, I took advantage of the opportunity and built out the van while working on my dissertation at the same time, finishing my Ph.D. in May 2020. In August 2020, I got my dog Bowie, and I became an online teaching professor at various institutions. I would do all my teaching duties in the morning and then I would go rock climbing afterward. But you can only do van life for so long, and I wanted to build a career – which is why I applied for this job.

What’s your favorite meal at the Hoch?

I typically follow a vegan diet, so I usually just go to Veggie Valley. I’m pretty easy to please when it comes to food, but I really enjoy the General Tso’s tofu as well as the Hoch’s Moroccan eggplant stew.

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