Campus Life

Afterhours with Cathy Drennan

Chem professor tells us why students should come to her office hours, not her shower

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Courtesy of Catherine L. Drennan

Catherine L. Drennan is head of a chemistry laboratory investigating medically- or environmentally-relevant enzymes here at MIT. She is also co-professor of 5.111, a popular freshman chemical principles course, in the spring. In December, I had the opportunity to sit down with Drennan to find out more about her strange connection to Lisa Kudrow, why she thinks purple is the best kind of dinosaur, and why she wishes students would ask questions at her office hours and not in her shower.

The Tech: What was the most exciting thing you ever did in college?

Catherine L. Drennan: I took a course in Indian theater with one of the famous directors of Indian theater who was on sabbatical leave at Vassar College. We read all of these traditional plays from India and then we performed a play. My role was basically sitting cross-legged on the floor and then at one point during the play — there were three of us — we all stood up and sort of screamed and then sat back down again. We all had to go to every rehearsal and I was like, “Really? Do I really need to be here at every rehearsal?” I was also taking analytical chemistry that semester, so I had little cards that I wrote my notes on. When I was sitting cross-legged, I had my little analytical chemistry cards and I ended up getting an “A” in analytical chemistry, as well as in Indian theater! I’m not sure I would’ve gotten an “A” in analytical chemistry if it hadn’t been for all of those hours sitting cross-legged that I got to study.

TT: What is your most embarrassing story, or what’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you?

CLD: I taught high school after I graduated from college. I taught at a Quaker boarding school in Iowa that doubled as a working hog farm. I lived in the girls’ dorm and I taught chemistry and physics and biology — basically ninth grade science — and I was also the drama teacher. When I was living in the girls’ dorm, at one point someone did not remember what her homework was. So she came to my apartment, found the door open — and I was actually in the shower — she came into the apartment and into the bathroom, pulled back the shower curtain and said, “What was the chemistry homework for tomorrow?” I tell that story as a way to indicate to freshmen here that coming to my office hours is OK. I have office hours, I like students to come to my office hours — this is not bothering the professor — as opposed to coming into my apartment and my bathroom, pulling back the shower curtain, and asking what the homework is! That is too much! Coming to my office hours is just fine.

TT: A more serious question for you: Do you have an overarching goal or set of goals in your life, and where do you think you are in reaching that?

CLD: I like to have lots of goals, actually. One goal that I definitely have has to do with convincing people that chemistry is a wonderful subject. It is something that I did not figure out for a long time in my personal life. I did not like chemistry at all in high school and then I got to college and was forced to take it, and I discovered that I like chemistry. And I think that chemistry is often taught in a way that really makes it uninteresting, and that sort of the natural interest in chemistry — you know you have to get more into it. People can get things that they like about biology more readily, and somewhat in physics too, because you can see these basic principles in physics. But chemistry somehow doesn’t have that. People don’t always see what’s cool about chemistry until they get into it more. So one of my goals is to help people find their own personal connection with chemistry, because it really is a core of science. Everyone at MIT is interested in science or engineering at some level, and they need basic chemical principles in order to do well in what they’re studying. Yet sometimes they don’t quite get why chemistry is important until it’s too late.

TT: So what’s it like to be a mother, a professor, and to be doing research? How do you divide your time?

CLD: Being a professor, you’re always pretty much insanely busy. The job is very demanding because you’re teaching, you’re doing research, you’re running a research program — so you’re supervising people, you’re raising money for your research. So you’re kind of a CEO, and a teacher, and it’s just like all sorts of things wrapped up. One time I had a collaborator in town and normally, before having a child, I would take him out to dinner with the people I was collaborating with, but now I have people over to my house more, because I worry about the restaurant with a two-and-a-half year-old. One time, a bunch of my post-docs and grad students came over and we were talking science and we actually ending up staying up really late finishing this paper we were working on and it was just tremendously fun. You know, she was upstairs asleep and we were downstairs talking science until like one in the morning. So I think that the flexibility is just amazing, and the graduate students and post-docs in my lab are really supportive of trying to help me balance everything. If it means having a meeting in my house instead of at the office, everyone is very supportive of that. I think that people just look at the job and they see the “busy,” but they don’t see that flexibility as much.

TT: At the beginning of every semester of 5.111 you tell your class a story about how when you were a student at Vassar College, Lisa Kudrow (of Friends fame) was also studying there. And you said that when you went to college you were planning on majoring in drama and that Lisa had planned to major in biology, but evidently you kind of switched paths. Now, I know you can’t speak for Lisa, but can you tell us in a little more detail what it was that motivated you to make such a big switch?

CLD: I also liked science, so I was thinking of sort of biology, psychology, biopsychology, drama, or some combination thereof. I actually did take a number of drama classes at Vassar, including the Indian theater one, and Vassar is a very famous place for theater — Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda and all sorts of people have come from there. That was one of the reasons why I thought that that’s where I wanted to go to college. They’re not so much known for chemistry — they have a very small chemistry department, but it’s a very good one. And because I was thinking of becoming a biology major, I had to take chemistry my freshman year, and then I just fell in love with chemistry. I continued to take theater and education courses. I was definitely a well-rounded chemistry student and took a lot of other things, but it was my freshman chemistry teacher who really made me fall in love with chemistry.

I certainly use all of the things that I learned in my theater classes when giving lectures. Often, if it’s a really big lecture hall, I will have stage directions to myself about when the boards go up and down and where I’ll be standing, and when to do the demo. So all of my lecture notes also have a whole bunch of stage directions. I think that for anyone that wants to teach really large lectures, a few theater lessons can definitely be useful.

TT: Having said that, can you give your students some advice on how to balance their own lives here at MIT?

CLD: What I tell people is that it’s always good to be thinking about what interests you and what you like, but having too firm a plan is not a good idea because it just puts blinders on you, and you often don’t notice something else that is really what you should be doing. It’s fine to not really know what you want to do, and it’s fine to switch majors. And here, because everyone is taking sort of the same core courses, there’s extra time to figure out what you want to do. Just try out things, explore, and don’t take seven classes at once — that’s too much exploring! Just look around, talk to people, try out some things. Deciding something isn’t right for you, it isn’t failure, it’s just that’s part of the growing experience. If you never make any mistakes it just means your path is too well-defined.

TT: If you had one final piece of advice for your students, what would it be?

CLD: I think the biggest advice about MIT, at least, is to get involved in research while you’re here because there are so many amazing opportunities to do research and it can be an extra family in a place that’s fairly big. Most undergraduates get to know the people that they live with and those people become very important to them, but a research group can be like a second family. Get to know graduate students, get to know undergrads, get to know faculty, and make a home for yourself that’s sort of a research home here. Even if you end up not doing that research in particular later in life, having those connections and that network here can be really, really important. My undergrad research advisor was very much key, someone I’m still in touch with. Regarding a lot of the faculty here, I think a lot of undergrads think that they are busy and that they aren’t interested in getting to know the students, but for the most part I think that’s just not true. Engagement with undergrads is one of the things that faculty say is the most rewarding. Undergrads should really get to know at least three faculty members. I mean, obviously you need three letters of recommendation, but it’s more than just that. It’s advice on all sorts of things besides your professional development and it’s just good to have those connections. We’re not that scary!

This is the first of a series of interviews with MIT professors. Ever wanted to ask your professor something totally random? Send your questions and professor suggestions to