Changing Lives Through Chemistry
You can tell a lot about a professor just by asking the students that he or she has taught. Just query undergraduates who have sat in the classroom of chemistry professor Susan Bontems at Montgomery College in Maryland and be prepared to hear words like passionate, engaged, fun, enthusiastic and motivational as they describe Susan’s atypical way of reaching out to students to make her challenging courses in organic chemistry relevant and meaningful.
To put it succinctly, she excels at the art of teaching.
In addition to teaching, Susan, who works at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus, also has a strong interest in polymer chemistry. Before joining Montgomery College in 2001, she worked in England for a global chemical company managing a team of chemists developing new adhesives, which are based on polymers. Susan has also worked in research and development for General Electric, where she gained much of her polymer knowledge through work on silicone adhesives. In addition to her polymer and adhesive knowledge, she also has experience in pharmaceutical research.
As committed as she is to laboratory science, she is equally driven to connect with students in the classroom about chemistry. She teaches Chemistry 203 and 204 with an accompanying lab during most semesters, as well as Chemistry 101 and 102 with labs. “I am passionate about my teaching and about my colleagues and Montgomery College,” says Susan proudly. “We truly do change lives here in a very real and very positive way.” She describes her personal approach to relating to her students: “I strongly believe that one of the key elements of excellent teaching at my level is to reach out and make a strong personal connection to every student. So not only do I come to class with maximum enthusiasm, but I also work to involve the entire class, including asking them a question or two every few minutes. This may not sound like much, but many people think that there isn’t time to fit discussion into a challenging science class.”
As a result of this extra effort, she finds that students remain engaged, even enthusiastically involved in debating the best answer to the question asked. As testament to their involvement, many of her young charges tend to sit in front of the lecture hall, not the back, and follow her to other levels of chemistry courses she teaches. Susan’s considers her biggest achievement, however, to be the success of her students as they progress through the institution and beyond. She enjoys watching them continue on to four-year schools and to medical schools, pharmacy schools, nursing schools, and dental schools. Montgomery College is a community college with public, open admissions serving nearly 60.000 students per year at three campuses in Montgomery County, Maryland. Montgomery’s alumna Minh Van Thi Tran, now a pharmacy student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, is among various students who say they owe much of their success to Susan. Says Minh: “Nowadays, getting into pharmacy school is very competitive, even for students who already have a B.S. degree, so it was much harder for me, a student with just an A.A. degree. But the knowledge I acquired in Professor Bontems’ class helped me succeed in the entrance exam for pharmacy school and I got accepted to three schools….”
Susan’s dedication to effective science instruction has not gone unnoticed by others. Last year she was named the Maryland Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education — a prestigious honor that recognizes undergraduate instructors who excel as teachers and influence the lives and careers of their students.
Born in Arizona, Susan received her Bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she graduated with honors. After a year of graduate school at Princeton University, she returned home to complete her grad studies at Arizona State University, where she earned a Master’s degree in chemistry. Following graduation, she did research at the University of Minnesota for two years, and then began working in industrial research positions for the next decade.
In addition to her up-front-and-personal approach in the classroom, she is also effective working behind the scenes at to enhance chemistry education at Montgomery College. She encouraged the Germantown Campus Chemistry Department to offer honors courses and worked with a colleague to develop and run a seminar-style honors module for organic chemistry. She also co-authored new laboratory manuals for organic labs to improve student understanding and safety.
One of her most significant contributions to the College and the community is her leadership in the Spectrum Lecture Series, which features presentations by noted area scientists on topics that cover the spectrum of modern science—from nanotechnology to the origins of the universe. “I truly enjoy bringing everything to my work – giving my all, says Susan. “I like making a difference.”
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