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Chemistry prof injects humor, life experience into teaching

By Allison Dugaw
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, September 9, 2004
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When students think of an organic chemistry professor, they might picture a boring old man in a white lab coat and glasses.

They might not picture an outgoing professor with two tattoos, telling his students he got a C his first semester in organic chemistry.

This is Dr. David Spurgeon.

Spurgeon is passionate about Shakespeare, enjoys Japanese art, and loves teaching organic chemistry at the UA.

And, in return, his students love having him as a teacher.

Spurgeon has a drawer in his office full of thank-you notes and postcards from former students either telling him where they are now or thanking him for being such a great professor.

"Being a mentor is a really important role. I want to know more than just a student's name," said Spurgeon, who teaches an undergraduate lecture class.

"One thing I like to do with my students is talk to them about what they can do, give them an idea of what's out there."

Ann Juodakis, a public health graduate student who took Spurgeon's organic chemistry class in spring 2003, said Spurgeon uses his personal experiences to help students understand what the chemist's world is like.

He is by far the best professor I've ever had at UA. He takes time out to talk to students about life, puts things in perspective.

- Sanjay Sinha, molecular and cellular biology junior


"He'll talk of his hair exploding or his arm catching on fire," she said with a laugh. "He thinks everyone should be a chemist or an artist, and if you're not one of the two, you're vetoed."

Sanjay Sinha, a molecular and cellular biology junior, told Spurgeon during his office hours last Thursday that he enjoyed his o-chem so much, he recruited another student to take it.

"He is by far the best professor I've ever had at UA," Sinha said. "He takes time out to talk to students about life, puts things in perspective."

Spurgeon said he uses jokes and personal experiences to engage his students and try to make a subject like organic chemistry interesting.

"I have a lot of enthusiasm for the topic, enthusiasm is my strength," he said. "The best review I could get from a student would be, 'This was the hardest class I've ever had, but he was the best teacher I've ever had'."

Because, he said, organic chemistry is not easy.

"This isn't a cakewalk, it's a hard class. I expect a lot from my students," he said. "I want them to be challenged, not blown away, and my job is to help them succeed."

Juodakis said while Spurgeon's class is difficult, students walk away from his lectures knowing the subject.

"People always came to his class. If you missed, you'd regret it." Juodakis said. "It's the only chemistry class I've sat through the full hour and a half without being bored."

Spurgeon said he has a lot of interests that are non-traditional for a chemist, which is evident in his office.

On the walls hang small paintings of artist Georgia O'Keefe, author Jack Kerouac and musician John Lee Hooker, along with a picture of Spurgeon's 7-year-old daughter Sidney.

Spurgeon received his undergraduate degree in chemistry and biochemistry at UA, before going to UCLA for his master's degree and doctorate.

He then worked for the Clorox Corporation in Northern California studying airborne odors.

Then, after two years, he decided he wanted to go to law school and was ready to come back to UA.

But while participating in a yacht race across the Pacific Ocean one summer, he said he had "a moment."

"The only thing I could think of was, 'Why do I want to go to law school?'" he said. "So I called the UA law school from Hawaii and said 'I'm not coming'."

Since he was already committed to moving to Tucson, Spurgeon decided to start teaching labs and general chemistry at UA in fall 1992 and has been teaching ever since.

Spurgeon said on his last lecture of the semester he always gives students the best piece of advice he can give.

"College is about a broader perspective," he said. "Find that one thing that you're really passionate about, and that's the best thing you can learn in college."

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