Biophysics, Chemistry, Neuroscience
Irving Epstein is Henry F. Fischbach Professor of Chemistry, Senior Advisor to the Provost, and Senior Research Officer at Brandeis University.
Borrowing from the slang of the Old West, inner-city youth sometimes refer to their groups of friends as "posses." In academic circles, New York's successful Posse Foundation has given the word a new meaning: a group of inner-city high school students trained as leaders and role models and then enrolled at top colleges and universities.
Chemist Irving Epstein is collaborating with the Posse Foundation to bring "science posses" to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts—in addition to the 10 Posse Foundation students that already enter Brandeis each year. He has worked with the foundation to develop a program that focuses on science, and he now seeks to propagate the Science Posse concept to other universities across the country. "We take kids who, on paper, look like they can't succeed in science and help them to do just that," Epstein says.
Thus far, he has revamped Brandeis's student selection process to take into account the potential of the science posse candidates, developed a college preparation course for high school seniors, and added a two-week, on-campus summer "science boot camp" for entering freshmen.
"We train students in the culture of science before their first day of classes, and, judging by the performance of our first two Science Posses, it's made a huge difference," says Epstein, who is also starting two new programs to entice high school juniors and middle school students into science. Epstein has not only sought to attract inner-city students—most of them underrepresented minorities, first-generation college students, or both—into science, he has also worked to prevent unexciting introductory chemistry courses from driving students away from science majors.
A chemist who pioneered the systematic design and study of oscillating chemical reactions—research with practical applications in biology and many other fields of science—Epstein clearly finds chemistry anything but boring. "General chemistry, for many students, is seen more as an obstacle, instead of something that's intellectually interesting," he points out.
So, based on student feedback, Epstein modified the general chemistry course to reduce lecturing and maximize fun, including visual demonstrations, hands-on experience, and computer games. Epstein is the ideal scientist to bring fun into the classroom. Thirty years ago, he was looking for a summer project for an undergraduate when he stumbled across an article about pattern formation in chemical systems. It turned his life around, in the lab and the classroom. He changed the focus of his research from quantum mechanics to pattern formation and nonlinear dynamics, and ever since he has been using chemicals in his classes that, when combined, result in striking swirl patterns or rhythmic changes from one color to another. "This kind of behavior is eye-catching and makes students wonder about its causes," he explains. "If they can understand why chemicals behave this way, we can get them thinking and asking questions like scientists."