Teaching Organic Chemistry: Q&A with award-winning professor Richard Mullins

Organic chemistry is considered one of the more difficult subjects to teach and learn. Even award-winning professor and author, Richard Mullins struggled with the course during his undergraduate.

We caught up with Rick to learn about his experience with organic chemistry as a student, why he chose to author a textbook, and his approach to help students tackle one of the toughest science courses.

Organic chemistry is notoriously one of the toughest courses for students. Tell me a little bit about your organic chemistry experience as an undergraduate.

Yes, organic chemistry is known for being a “weed out” course. Students have to take it if they want to go to medical school. When was in college, that was my plan: I was going to be doctor; nothing could change my mind.

As a student, I had felt really good about my ability to study and learn. But when I took my first exam, I got a C. I was devastated.

But being a hard worker, I thought: “It's OK. I'm going to double down. I'll do what I always do for biology, for high school, for general chemistry.” I studied the same way, even harder. My reward was a D. I went from a C to a D from exam one to exam two.

Oh wow. How did you go from a struggling organic chemistry student to an award-winning organic chemistry professor?

After getting my grade back from that exam, I went to the professor and asked for help. Through that conversation and the hundreds afterwards, he helped me to learn organic chemistry.

Since I was never great at memorizing, he taught me to understand the logic, to connect concepts, and to look for trends. In some ways, I was weeded into organic chemistry because, at that point, I fell in love with the subject.

If I look back on my life, my organic chemistry professor changed my direction. I really idolized him and wanted to have the effect he had on me with students in my own class. Eventually, I decided to go to graduate school. Fast forward and here I am as an organic chemistry professor.

"I really idolized my organic chemistry professor and wanted to have the effect he had on me with students in my own class."

What eventually prompted you to write an organic chemistry textbook?

Over the course of my time as a professor at Xavier University, I pledged to see organic chemistry through the eyes of the students. I wanted to try and encounter organic chemistry as they would, as I did as a pre-med, biology major.

However, I still encountered some challenges teaching organic chemistry.

When I started teaching, one thing students often said on Rate My Professor and teaching evaluations was to not read the book and just go to lecture. The question came to mind: why is the lecture so much better for the students than the book?

"I pledged to see organic chemistry through the eyes of the students."

This made me think that maybe there’s a need for a better book—one that is more like lecture. In lectures, I can form relationships with students. I can get to know them. They can ask me questions. We can work on problems together.

Think about when you last studied a book that can do those things too. So I began thinking:Can we write a book that takes the best of lecture and puts it into a textbook?

Can we establish a relationship with students through an organic chemistry book? We all read novels and develop relationships with the story or characters. But can an organic chemistry book establish a rapport with the students?

Can it meet them where they are? Can it anticipate questions? Can it ask questions for them? Can the book have a personality?

That was kind of the beginning of the idea for this project. Personality can engage students—that’s what we do in the classroom. If we can do that in a textbook, we can engage them in the same way.

"Can we write an organic chemistry book that takes the best of lecture and puts it into a textbook?"

We’ve heard students say that reading your textbook felt like having a friend in the course. How did you manage to build this rapport with students through a textbook?

That’s lovely to hear. The book’s introduction starts with me telling my personal story and sharing advice on how to best succeed in organic chemistry with tips like having a growth mindset, grit, and study strategies.

I think this does two things:

  1. It shows students that learning and being successful in organic chemistry has value beyond passing this course when they head into medical and graduate school.
  2. It acknowledges that students are fully capable and competent to learn even the most difficult material with the right toolkit.

Throughout the textbook, there is a cartoon called Rick. That’s another thing the book does to lighten the mood.

Cartoon Rick and his friends will pop up to give advice and recommendations. They will say: “Hey, let’s try thinking of this a new way,” just as a professor in office hours would.

Organic chemistry is a really stressful course and causes a lot of anxiety. Having these cartoons helps students feel like they have these friends supporting them through every struggle and confusion.

"These cartoons help students feel like they have these friends supporting them through every struggle and confusion"

It seems that the textbook is quite fun and humorous. But there’s a lot to cover in organic chemistry and the material is dense and difficult in nature. Is it not important to make sure students still learn the material?

Of course, it’s important. But a friendly conversational book and rigor don’t have to be mutually exclusive, right?

One of my priorities when writing the book was to move students away from memorizing facts and superficial shortcuts like mnemonics, just like my organic professor did for me. I wanted to guide them towards actually understanding the principles and critically thinking about concepts.

At the end of the day, students need to know organic chemistry when taking upper-year biochemistry courses, the medical school admissions test, and when they go to grad school.  But they can learn the material better through an engaging discussion and not struggling through a dense encyclopedic text.

What is one thing you hope students can take away from your textbook?

For many of the students, their ultimate end goal is to get that white coat in medical school, graduate from college, or become a research scientist. When they accomplish that goal, their mind will go to all who helped them achieve it: professors, parents, friends, allies, and hopefully this book.

I hope this book inspires students, gets them engaged, shows them how to learn organic chemistry, and help them achieve that goal. I want them to have their lives changed in the way that organic chemistry changed mine.

"I want students to have their lives changed in the way that organic chemistry changed mine."

Learn more about how the approach of with Mullins’ new organic chemistry textbook can empower students to succeed in your course

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Richard J. Mullins, born near Detroit, Michigan, grew up in Middle Tennessee where his love of sports and science was cultivated. He attended Centre College, where he pitched for the college baseball team. Though he entered college intending to pursue a career in medicine, an inspiring organic chemistry professor changed his path, leading him to graduate in 1998 with a B.S. in Chemistry and plans for a career as an organic chemist. Upon enrolling at Indiana University, he considered multiple careers in chemistry before soon realizing that teaching at an undergraduate institution was his calling. After earning his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 2004, specializing in organic chemistry, Rick was hired as a tenure track professor at Xavier University.

He has taught at Xavier University ever since, being recently promoted in 2017 to Professor. His teaching has been recognized with multiple awards, including the Joan G. McDonald Teaching Award which recognizes excellent teaching in the sciences as well as the Alpha Sigma Nu Bishop Fenwick Teacher of the Year Award, the most prestigious teaching award given at Xavier University. His research has traditionally been focused on the development and application of new methods for the synthesis of small natural products with potential medicinal applications. Rick lives in Cincinnati, OH with his wife, Mary, daughter, Maggie, and son, John. When not teaching or writing about organic chemistry, Rick still enjoys participating in sports by coaching his son’s select baseball team, running marathons and half-marathons, and supporting his favorite college and professional sports teams. Though records can’t confirm it, because of his longevity in the sport, Rick is the [self-proclaimed] all-time leading scorer in intramural basketball history at Xavier University.