Faculty Q&A – Stefan Debbert

Stefan Debbert, Associate Professor of Chemistry, stands for a portrait on Main Hall Green Thursday, October 24, 2019.

Photo provided by Office of Communications.

How are you so chill??? — Anonymous 

This is kind of you to say but demonstrably false. I am by nature kind of a “try-hard,” according to local teens who live in my house. But whatever: this should not be a pejorative! It is 2021, we are all of us trying hard, and everybody deserves as much grace as can be extended (even terrible local teens). My students this year have certainly extended that grace to me, and I very much appreciate it. 

What qualities do you look for in a student? — Anonymous 

The students that I like helping the most are the ones that are, will be, or have been in one or more of my classes (“my students,” if I’m being self-centered) — about 750 organic chemistry students so far, plus FRST and stuff. A close second would be those Lawrence students that come to me for help in classes I have never taken and know nothing about, like oboe or Spanish. Can I help in those cases? No, not even a little, but it’s a nice gesture. Third: surly local teens that are also my children. 

Why/How did you choose to specialize in organic chemistry? — Anonymous 

I just really like thinking about building molecules. There’s room for creativity, and uncertainty, and serendipity, and straight-up snake-eyes failure. Most of all, cleverness and trickery, from both the animate and inanimate. Broad rules can help you understand how things come together, in the lab and in the person (i.e, in meeee), and seeing how that simple model predicts so much is really satisfying. It is sort of like soccer, in that my enjoyment of it far outstrips my ability at it. 

What’s kept you excited about chem during all this time here? Your positivity is infectious! — Alex Bemben ’23 

Again, this is very kind. Who doesn’t like unveiling some mysteries of the universe to people that want to hear it? Behold, I tell you a mystery: if you heat ice, it melts, but if you heat an egg, it gets much harder. OK, fine, you knew that, but I know how and why it happens (I think), and it is very cool, and I am literally paid American dollars to explain it to people. Some people are very scared of the stuff I love, so I appreciate the chance to show them why it is beautiful and surprisingly fun.