Campus Life

Afterhours with Beth Taylor

Chem professor discusses her German roots and how she got into teaching

Elizabeth Vogel Taylor PhD ’07 loves her role as an instructor at MIT. Since MIT instructors don’t run their own labs, they get to focus all of their time on teaching, which Taylor does, both in the 5.111 (Principles of Chemical Science) classroom and also in her work developing chemistry teaching tools. She spoke with The Tech about why she enjoys teaching chemistry and trying to teach German to her baby daughter.

The Tech: I’m curious if you can speak German. Your maiden name means “bird” in German, and I read that you met your husband on a trip to Germany.

Elizabeth Vogel Taylor: It is German. I’m actually mostly Irish, but I’m also German. I don’t speak much German; I took it a little bit in high school. My husband is actually fluent in German, so hopefully our daughter will be as well. My husband speaks to her sometimes in German, and originally we thought he would speak to her all the time in German, but when you say baby things you tend to just say them in your own language. She’s only nine months old now, anyway.

I actually did meet my husband in Germany. We love to travel there. When I met my husband we were in Berlin, and then about two years ago we took a really long bike trip along the Danube. Biking is such a nice way to see and actually experience the countryside.

TT: What was something that was really important to you as part of your own college experience?

EVT: One thing is that you get more opportunities as you get deeper into a field to specialize and to learn things really deeply, and something that I loved about college is that you can explore all sorts of things. As you go, for example, to graduate school, you kind of lose the opportunity to take classes far outside your area of study. One thing that was really valuable about college was the opportunity to sit with an expert on something that’s not what you’re going to go into, but that you just find interesting. You get to spend time on that in a rigorous way, just like you would with what you’re actually studying.

TT: What is it that drew you to become an instructor at MIT?

EVT: I originally wanted to be a doctor. Growing up, I loved science and medicine and thinking about how the biology of things worked, and I also wanted to do something where I felt like I could help people. And when I got to college I really loved freshman chemistry, and then I got into organic chemistry, which was just by far the most exciting and fun class I had ever taken. I loved the problem-solving aspect of it, and I loved how these molecules were real things, and I was particularly interested in the medicine side of things — all of a sudden I could understand something about the structure and function of the medicines that we take. So I still thought, I’m going to be a doctor, and this is good that I love chemistry. Then I decided I would actually major in biochemistry instead of biology, and I took more organic and advanced chemistry classes. I decided, “I’m going to be a chemistry major and still be pre-med,” and then not until my junior year when I started research did I realize you actually can help people, and chemists have a huge impact on medicine and solving some of the most important problems that the world has.

In terms of being an instructor, I love school, and I love the idea that you go and sit down in a class, and someone who loves the subject takes all of these really complicated ideas and distills them into something that’s easily digestible — that’s really exciting. I would probably just go to school forever if that was a career you could have. I also love it as a teacher. I love reading papers and thinking about how I would differently explain something that was really complicated. It’s really fun to work with students. I’m spoiled with MIT students who are just really excited about learning and bring a new perspective to something you already have thought a lot about.

TT: Could you explain the “getting biologists excited about chemistry” initiative that you work on?

EVT: The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has a bunch of different initiatives that they award grants for, and probably the most well-known here at MIT is HHMI Investigators. They also want to revolutionize the way biology and medical sciences are taught so that they are more engaging and get more groups that aren’t typically in the sciences into the sciences, so that we’re not losing women and underrepresented minorities that tend to not be as prevalent as professors, for example.

One of our programs is to make sure we retain that talent and grab it early before people have decided to do other things with their lives. Basically, we’re trying to change the way that people think about chemistry. We have a huge number of pre-medical students and biology majors and biological engineering majors. So we take examples from biology and medicine and show how there are chemical principles that underlie those examples.

The idea with the program is that we put all our money into creating [teaching] materials, and then these materials can be used by other schools. They’re meant to be very inexpensive to keep going. We also put a big focus on assessment, and we work with the Teaching and Learning Laboratory here to make sure that what we do is effective.

We also have created a TA training program that has more of a focus on things like supporting and engaging students and using wise criticism to make sure everyone in the class feels supported, but also feels like there are high expectations for them. It’s really important to consider the fact that first-year students have needs outside of just passing freshman chemistry — they need to learn how to be good students, they need to understand what their potential is and what they need to do to reach that potential. So we have a lot of resources that we’ve created for training the teaching assistants, and we’re lucky in having MIT graduate students who are phenomenal researchers but also have a tremendous talent for teaching.