A life-long orgo prof. in the making

September 13, 2019

Although Professor Kristen Mascall (CHEM) is in her sixth year at Brandeis University, she still has a campus map clipped to one of the drawers in her office, maybe because most of her time is spent within the labyrinthine halls of the Shapiro Science Center (SSC). Her office is tucked away in a hidden corner of the SSC, her only window looking out onto the lab space she uses to teach her favorite and, as of now only, class: organic chemistry.

Organic chemistry, what Professor Mascall calls her “baby,” is a class full of mostly sophomore pre-med students. Professor Mascall also taught general chemistry in her first year at Brandeis, which is populated by mostly first-years. She said that during her time teaching freshmen, she discovered that most of them are “just trying to figure things out.” They “don’t know what’s out there,” she said, and therefore haven’t decided the direction they want to take with their college careers and their lives. 

Professor Mascall, like most people, relates to the lament of the freshmen, having been equally indecisive in her first years as a college student. She grew up and attended undergrad on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean, but since she was enrolled in a “distance program,” she finished her last two years in Barbados, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics. 

She said that where she grew up, “chemistry professor” wasn’t a well-known job title. Most children were only accustomed to the mainstream professions like doctor, lawyer or nurse. According to Professor Mascall, this is part of the reason why she originally wanted to go to school to become a dentist, an idea carried over from childhood which was quickly dropped in undergrad when she realized what she loved was “being in the academic environment.” Her decision to become a professor was a result of a lifelong love of school and academia.

Chemistry wasn’t quite the lifelong affair, however. She decided to major in her favorite subject in school—math—but she wanted to add on a science major, and according to Professor Mascall, she “hated chemistry the least.” It was only when she discovered organic chemistry that she really fell in love with the subject. 

Her time at Brandeis has been “amazing, in one word,” Professor Mascall said. The students are the best thing about her experience because they are “so diverse . . . all the clubs that they’re in, where everybody came from, how they ended up at Brandeis,” she continued. According to Professor Mascall, the relationships that she builds with these students allow her to learn from the students as they learn from her. She believes that, as a professor, it is important to have this relationship with students “so that your students remember that you are also a person.” 

“One of the things that we’re here for is to help them,” she said. Both to prevent students from feeling lost in the classroom and for recommendations and advice about the future. Presenting herself as an approachable professor allows her students to take advantage of the resource that she offers. This dedication to her students is reflected in her Louis Dembitz Brandeis Prize for Excellence in Teaching, a student and faculty nominated award, which she earned in 2018.

In addition to Professor Mascall’s position as an organic chemistry professor, she is the only African American professor in the chemistry department and part of the mere one percent of African American professors at Brandeis. Although she said she hasn’t felt treated differently by her peers, she does believe that her position is important to other diverse students. “Other people can see the potential, and see what’s possible,” she said. It lends another level to her job, “to have this opportunity, and to do it well, and to inspire other people,” she said.

Professor Mascall is leaving Brandeis at the end of the semester and moving to Connecticut to get married. Close by, but not close enough to commute, she said with a pout. “I don’t want people to think, ‘you found a better job than Brandeis, and so you’re just up and leaving,’” she said. Although she loves it here at Brandeis, and she’s sad to be leaving, “I’m looking forward to what’s next, and something different I could do,” she said.

But Professor Mascall won’t be moving away until the end of the semester. In the meantime, she’s focusing on improving her organic chemistry labs. “It’s all about improving student’s experience,” she said. She’s excited to test out her new and improved experiments this fall.

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