After traveling to New Mexico from the other side of the world 16 years ago, Eastern New Mexico University Chemistry Professor Juchao Yan found himself exactly where he wanted to be: Instilling a passion for science in his students through practical applications.
"In this college, we have quite a large number of first-generation, under-prepared students, most of whom are economically strapped. Working with these students, we need enthusiasm, dedication and patience. Finding a way to inspire them and to prepare them well for jobs and for living fulfilling lives is very rewarding and is what I enjoy doing," he said.
Before beginning work at ENMU in 2002, Yan earned his doctorate in chemistry from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Changchun, China in 1997, and moved to Albuquerque, where he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico from 1998-2001.
What fascinates you about your chemistry?
Inspired by my younger brother, I started to like Chemistry when I was in junior high. In college, the more I learned about chemistry, the more I liked it. Chemistry is about the structure, property and reactivity of matter. It's the central science, and particularly, for my expertise, what I was trained, it's analytical chemistry. Analytical chemistry, to give you a basic idea, is about the science of obtaining, processing, communicating information about the composition and structure of matter.
Particularly, this sub-discipline of chemistry tries to answer four questions: 'What is it,' 'How much is present,' 'Is your stuff there,' 'How to get pure stuff?' It turns out, analytical chemistry is truly important and fundamental to several other sub-disciplines of chemistry, for example, materials chemistry, biochemistry, environmental science, and so on and so forth.
With what I was trained, I think having the opportunity to educate young generations to be scientists is truly fascinating, and it's something I really enjoy doing.
How does teaching continue to teach you?
Learning is a lifelong process. While I teach others, I keep learning new things, and I believe that helped me teach better. To give you one example, about six years ago, when I was asked to teach forensic chemistry for our newly initiated forensic science program, at the time I said, 'Oh, no. I know nothing about that.' But, later on, the more I got involved in that, the more I learned and felt more comfortable when I come to a classroom to lecture.
What has been rewarding about teaching at a small university like ENMU?
I would say personal touch, because here, you have the opportunity to be a role model and to help everyone in your class, which is quite different from lecturing for several hundred students in a big lecture hall at big schools.
What inspired you to start teaching?
First of all, the things I know about, and second of all, the latest research advancements I learn about. Besides teaching, I also do research, and my current research project, for example, is about biofuel. We try to use algae to treat wastewater while generating biomass suitable for biofuel production, and we hope that's a win-win, because you take care of the environment, and simultaneously you find alternatives to address energy issues, and the more
I'm involved in my research, the more I feel like, in the near future, I should develop and design courses that interface the environment and energy. Involving students in ongoing research projects provides a wonderful opportunity to educate our students and to make them more marketable.