The traditional approach to teaching college chemistry, which includes in-class lectures and expectations of hours of individual study, often acts as a roadblock for underrepresented students seeking a career in science. Traditional thermoelectric materials, which include bismuth tellurides and selenides, can act like heat pumps in cooling systems when jolted by an electrical current. Benny C. Chan has applied his love of problem-solving to change the structures of both. Through an interdisciplinary approach to research, he has helped fill gaps in chemistry education as well as in the published crystal structures of thermoelectric compounds.
Hometown: Ewing, New Jersey
Education: BA, Franklin and Marshall College, 1996; PhD, the Pennsylvania State University, 2003
Current position: Professor of chemistry and chair of the Chemistry Department, the College of New Jersey
LGBTQ+ identity: Gay cisgender male/nonbinary
Impactful book: The genre that has had an impact on me is all the superhero comics and movies, in particular the mutants in the X-Men and Marvel universe because they were born with their powers and many times treated poorly by society. They were allegory for my experiences growing up and coming to terms with my sexuality.
Best professional advice you’ve received: True innovation comes when you are working at the fringes. Sit in that discomfort.
Chan, an inorganic chemist and chair of the Chemistry Department at the College of New Jersey, studies how adding elements to bismuth telluride compounds might disrupt their structures and change their thermoelectric properties. Students in his lab have published the structures of a wide variety of chemical compounds, including organic compounds that had been overlooked in the chemical literature. The College of New Jersey has limited lab space, so Chan relies on numerous collaborations. For example, he works with colleagues at Princeton University to help measure the thermal properties of the compounds his lab resolved structurally.
Former student Marisa Sanders says Chan had a major impact on her career path. She took two of his classes and conducted research in his lab that led to publications on the crystal structures of three compounds. “If you had a particular thing you enjoyed doing in the lab, he would just let you go for it,” she says. Sanders received her doctorate in solid-state inorganic chemistry in the lab of Chan’s Princeton collaborator. She is still writing about science as a patent agent while pursuing her law degree.
Chan has also worked with scientific partners to expand educational opportunities for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students from underfunded school systems. Many of these students are people of color, and Chan feels that they are owed a debt because of that lack of resources. “As a faculty member, I actually have a lot of control in paying that debt back,” he says.
J. Lynn Gazley, a sociologist of science and medicine at the College of New Jersey, worked with Chan to overhaul what is now the college’s Summer Scholars Program. The monthlong program helps incoming STEM students from underresourced schools develop the skill sets they need to thrive in college. “Benny was absolutely in the forefront of that,” Gazley says. “He was very clear on where he saw students struggling in first-year classrooms.” One solution has been to provide a space for the students to practice problem-solving and act as scientists by analyzing their own learning. They test new approaches to studying and retaining information, see what approaches work, and adapt accordingly.
That joint project led to a restructuring of the college’s general chemistry course to better meet the needs of incoming students. Many campuses try to “fix the students” to fit their structure, Gazley says. “The way Benny really redesigned general chemistry was he flipped that: it’s our responsibility to create a structure that supports students so that they can thrive.” So Chan and Gazley developed a model of teaching in which students watch videotaped lectures and review other course materials ahead of meeting together. Class time itself is then reserved for highly structured activities that guide them through the process of learning and developing good study habits.
Chemistry students have embraced this model. Across the board, the redesign has dramatically reduced the number who receive a D or F grade or withdraw from the class. The new model has also erased the performance gaps between White students and their Black and Latine counterparts. “So it benefited everyone,” Chan says.
In 2019, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (now known as Out to Innovate) selected Chan as its LGBTQ+ Educator of the Year. T. J. Ronningen, who is an electrical and computer engineer at the Ohio State University and led the awards committee, said the committee was particularly impressed by Chan’s ability to apply his research background toward improving chemistry education far beyond his own classrooms. “It really set him apart,” Ronningen says.
Chan is still expanding his reach. He has been active in Safe Zone training, which helps allies learn how to create safer spaces for members of the LGBTQ+ academic community. From that experience, Chan realized that much of the work on creating an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere also applies to students of color. He now conducts workshops and seminars at his institution and others on a wide range of race, LGBTQ+, gender, and socioeconomic issues. “All of those interplay together,” he says. As a gay man, a child of emigrants from Hong Kong, and a first-generation college graduate, Chan understands firsthand the importance of emphasizing intersectionality—the complex ways in which someone’s overlapping social identities can shape how that person experiences discrimination. This emphasis helps ensure that discussions of one issue don’t ignore intersecting ones.
Through all these efforts, Chan says, he’s realized that he couldn’t have had as much of an influence on students on his own. “I like broader-impact kind of things and changing the system,” he says. “You can’t change the system by yourself.” In his push to resolve structural issues, fortunately, this chemist is attracting quite a crowd.