Claudia Novack talks about the chemistry of her eclectic career
Although this is her first year as a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry, Claudia Novack started teaching at Brandeis long before this semester—it just happened to be a very different subject matter. She spoke with BrandeisNOW about her circuitous route to chemistry, and her passion for learning more.
BrandeisNOW: This is your first year as a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry, but you’ve been teaching here for a while now.
Claudia Novack: From 1987-1995 I was an adjunct instructor of voice in the music department, where I taught musical theater students. Then I went through this midlife career switch and started studying science. In 1997 I was hired by the chemistry department in a staff capacity just to teach sections of general chemistry lab at a time when we had few graduate students and very large enrollments in the lab course. This past year, I was appointed to the faculty and it’s already proven to be a very different kind of relationship with the students. As opposed to just working with students in my individual lab sections, I’m now in charge of a third of the first year class—we have nearly 300 people in our general chemistry class. General chemistry is a challenging course to teach because this is the first time that I’ve ever taught students something that they weren’t specifically here to learn. Most of the students that we have are interested in the life sciences and chemistry is a pre-requisite, or they’re interested in pursuing medical school and chemistry is a necessary means to an end. That poses some teaching challenges that I wasn’t accustomed to, but I’ve found it exciting to watch those same students really turn on to what I’m teaching them.
BrandeisNOW: Are there any parallels between teaching students a humanities subject and teaching a science?
CN: My background is in the humanities—my PhD is in Slavic linguistics from Brown—but I would say that teaching is teaching. It’s about communication. Teaching students individually, as I did when I was a voice teacher, meant really getting an intuitive feel for students as individuals. I am trying to bring that same humanities approach to my general chemistry class, even though I have a lot more students! I try to understand students’ individual needs, and anticipate where they might have difficulties. Since I come at it from a non-science background, it gives me a different perspective.
BrandeisNOW: Have you always been interested in science?
CN: I’ve always been interested in learning everything. Science didn’t necessarily come easily to me. As an undergraduate I was very busy because I was doing the New England Conservatory/Tufts University double-degree program; a pre-medical pursuit would have been impossible. But I had always wanted to go to veterinary school. In the mid-1990s, when the recession hit and I was making a living as a voice teacher, I could schedule 30 lessons in a week and 15 people would cancel because they didn’t have the money to pay for their lessons. I was also teaching actors who were not working very much. It was a really hard way to make a living, and I thought maybe I ought to go back to school, study science, and go to veterinary school, as I'd always wanted to. So I began studying science and, at some point, my mentor, Emily Dudek, picked up that I was also helping the other students. She offered me a position to teach five sections of general chemistry lab a week. I needed the money and the job, and they offered benefits for my entire family, so I couldn’t really turn it down. I laugh about it now, because no matter what I’ve ever set out to do in my life, I’ve ended up teaching it. I guess I’ve been teaching since I was a little kid—I’d learn something that other kids didn’t know and I’d teach it to them on the playground. It’s just in my blood. Whatever I’ve loved, I’ve ended up teaching, so it was sort of a natural progression—study something, fall in love with it, teach it. Just recently I was trained as a yoga teacher, which has been a passion of mine for some years, and now I’m teaching that too.
BrandeisNOW: Do you have any plans to combine two of your passions and start a music group with other chemists in your department?
CN: No, no plans like that, but I love my department. I feel very valued here by both the department and the students and always have. I can’t imagine a more ideal job situation. I come to work every day and I’m so happy to be here, I don’t even feel like I’m at work. I can’t really imagine changing what I’m doing now.