Vanderslice Professor of Chemistry T. Ross Kelly
Chemist Kelly, scholar in motion, is Teacher of Year
By Mark Sullivan
Vanderslice Professor of Chemistry T. Ross Kelly, who has designed one
of the world's smallest motors at 78 atoms in size, and who uses a
potato gun and a miniature cannon to bring a bang to his class in
organic chemistry, has been voted Teacher of the Year at Boston College
by the students of Phi Beta Kappa.
The first scientist to win the Teacher of the Year award, Kelly will be
honored at the academic honor society's induction ceremonies on May 23.
Students who nominated Kelly described him as an engaging teacher whose
motivational skills and real-world demonstrations made the most
challenging of subjects captivating.
"His enthusiasm and creativity opened the eyes of many students who were
fearful of taking organic chemistry," wrote one. Another wrote: "No
teacher has ever pushed me to my potential the way Dr. Kelly has. I wish
every student had to take organic just so more people could benefit from
Kelly might accurately be called a scholar in motion. He earned
headlines across the world five years ago with the prototype of a
molecular paddle wheel that was among the world's smallest motors. He
says he and his research team are nearing completion on a working model
of the 78-atom motor that will rotate continuously.
The motion theme carries over to Kelly's Merkert office, where shelves
and windowsills are lined with a whimsical collection of gizmos: a
perpetually-pumping oil derrick, an ancient Texaco souvenir lava lamp; a
Mystic Sphinx coin bank; balancing see-saws, and various tippy-birds.
The items in the Kelly curiosity cabinet have been found on the Web,
received as gifts, picked up in airport gift shops. Some he uses in
What looks like a small field-artillery piece on one shelf is a carbide
cannon, fueled by calcium carbide, a substance that when mixed with
water creates acetylene, as in the blowtorch. "It makes a very nice
bang," Kelly said.
For a recent visitor to his office, Kelly reached under his desk and
produced a several-foot-long piece of PVC pipe capped at one end with a
spark-making flint - a potato gun.
"You unscrew the cap, take hairspray, which has butane as a propellant,
and spray in just the right amount to create an explosive mixture with
the air," explained Kelly. "Give the sparker a twirl, and it will shoot
your potato 300 to 400 feet. It's quite impressive.
"I bring it to class because everything in here - the PVC, the butane,
the potato - is organic chemistry."
Kelly's charge is to engage 250 students in Devlin 008 in what
traditionally has been considered one of the most difficult of
"Many start class thinking it's going to be an ordeal," he said. "They
find out it's hard work, but it doesn't have to be impossible."
His teaching strategy includes drawing connections to the real world
through the copious use of demonstrations.
One of his favorites involves week-old mackerel. He uses the fish in a
lesson on the way certain ammonia-derived organic compounds called
amines can be neutralized by acids.
"Amines have distinctive smells that are said to be fishy," he said. "To
communicate that up close and personal, I take a fish that's been
sitting in the car for a while till it's nice and ripe, set it out on a
bed of lettuce, and pass it around the room."
Next he passes out lemons and invites students to squeeze away. "Amines
are what are called bases, and they are neutralized by acids. Fish is
usually served with lemon, which is full of citric acid. Squeezing lemon
neutralizes the amines and kills the smell."
The first thing in Kelly's office that catches the eye - even before the
models of molecules and the tippy birds - is a cork board well over six
feet high that stretches from tabletop to ceiling and is covered with
the photos of all 250 students in his organic chemistry class.
He brings a couple of pages of the pictures to class each day so he can
call on students by name. The students, of course, don't know whose
pictures he's brought on a given day, so they come to class prepared to
hear their names called.
"I tell them that if they raise their hands when they know the answer, I
won't call on them when they don't," he said, with a smile.
In 35 years on the faculty at Boston College, Kelly figures, he has
taught upward of 3,000 students. Many have gone on to careers as
physicians. Some have become scientists. One, Dennis Curran '75, an
organic chemist at the University of Pittsburgh, was named a BC Alumnus
of the Year a few years back.
That students voted him Teacher of the Year makes the award special,
said Kelly. "There's something very satisfying about teaching," he said.
"You make a difference in somebody's life being a teacher."
* * *
Teachers of the Year, as voted by Phi Beta Kappa
2004: T. Ross Kelly (Chemistry)
2003: Cynthia Lynn Lyerly (History)
2002: Rev. Michael Himes (Theology)
2001: Larry Wolff (History)
2000: Dale Herbeck (Communication)
1999: Christopher Wilson (English)
1998: Rev. John Howard, SJ (A&S Honors)
1997: Michael Resler (German Studies)
1996: John Heineman and Thomas Perry (History)
1995: Donald Hafner (Political Science) and Richard Hughes (English)
1994: John Mahoney (English)
1993: John Tierney (Political Science)
1992: Gerald Bilodeau (Mathematics)
1991: Mark O'Connor (A&S Honors)
1990: Mary Joe Hughes (A&S Honors)