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Meet Christian Bruckner, Head of Chemistry

Department of Chemistry
Ph.D.: University of British Columbia, Canada
Office Location: Chemistry Building

What would you say are the Department of Chemistry’s areas of strength in your field?
We are agents of change. We transform matter on many scales, we monitor the change, and we strive to predict how these changes occur. In practical terms, we are a mid-sized department that is large enough to offer teaching and research that covers all the classic subfields of chemistry as well as their modern interdisciplinary permutations. But we are small enough so everyone knows everyone, making everyone feel at home. Importantly, we are a very young department, with a third of our faculty hired in the past 5 years. This has added tremendous strength and momentum and brought expertise to campus in contemporary fields that were not even heard of some years ago.

What interests students in studying chemistry?
Chemistry can be learned through lectures, textbooks and problem sets, but these pale in comparison to the access to participation in high-level research available in our department. The deep understanding of chemical principles and the often life-long passion for research derived from early research participation is invaluable. This opportunity is a major attraction to our program.

What are the most popular classes taught in chemistry?
Chemistry is as much of a science as it is a craft, so it needs to be practiced. So, most laboratory classes are very well liked. Students really like organic chemistry, where they get to build and dissect molecules, and learn what many of the drugs, pigments, natural products, or plastics surrounding us look like on a molecular level. These classes are an eye-opener to many.

What types of jobs do students pursue after attaining a chemistry degree?
Many end up in the R&D departments of the pharmaceutical, petroleum, technology, consumer goods or commodities industries, or in the many federal research facilities, or as faculty at other schools. But many of our Ph.D. students are also employed in alternative careers, such as specialists at investment consulting companies. One is now a Major on active duty at the US Airforce.

What do you see as upcoming challenges or opportunities for your department?
Current environmental and societal challenges demand that we adopt more sustainable lifestyles, and chemistry can enable the harvesting of renewable assets, to produce the materials of our daily lives using fewer, more earth-abundant resources, while using less energy and producing less waste. Chemistry is also challenged to develop materials that are lighter, stronger, longer lasting, fully recyclable or quickly biodegradable. Here at UConn, the Green Emulsions, Micelles & Surfactants (GEMS) Center was founded a few years back with the aim of bringing diverse faculty together to tackle some of these questions in industrial catalysis, the energy sector, and nanomedicine. We also engage in many outreach activities. Most of our current support comes through State and federal funds, so we strive to make sure taxpayers know the benefits of doing our work.

Are there any common misconceptions about the field of chemistry?
A common misconception is that chemistry is hard and that only real “nerds” survive. I think it is not harder than any other science. Good chemists are frequently good cooks and brewers, too! We enjoy gender parity in our undergraduate and graduate chemistry classes, and there are multiple active student chemistry clubs and societies. And, we have an active social life – have you seen our softball team, the Acid Bases, on the field?

Where do you see your field going in the next 10 years?
Chemistry must become more integrated with other science and engineering disciplines, even the humanities. I see a lot of activities going into energy-related research: how to harvest light to generate electricity or to directly produce useful chemicals from renewable resources. Electronic devices are getting smaller, requiring new ‘smart’ materials and chemosensors. Potential drug candidates are becoming more complex, requiring novel synthetic strategies that are ‘green.’ Many interesting biological problems, like the origin of life, brain function, and the underlying mechanism of toxicity or immune responses, require powerful tools. Chemists will play a major role developing those.

What first interested you in chemistry?
I always knew I was going to become a scientist. I initially began to study chemistry with the intention to eventually switch to biology. I found out that the exacting way chemistry allows you to think about matter appealed to me and, moreover, I was good at it! My research specialty is, perhaps not coincidentally, the ‘pigments of life.’ The more things change, the more they stay the same!

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