The Chemists

Interacting with Students

Darlene Loprete
Chair, Department of Chemistry

The Rhodes Chemistry Department in Kennedy Hall has been home to Professor Darlene Loprete since 1990. Over the years, she has seen the department evolve into what it is today. Just last year a new Chemistry curriculum was implemented: In the past, students began their major requirements by taking two sections of Introductory Chemistry followed by two sections of Organic Chemistry. Now the two intro courses have been combined into Foundations of Chemistry, and the majors can proceed to the Organic classes and then into Analytical Chemistry. Loprete hopes that the new track will “better prepare the Chemistry majors for certain kinds of topics so they have more chemical knowledge before they go into advanced courses.”

Interacting with her students at different levels is one of Loprete’s favorite parts about teaching. She enjoys “seeing students develop into scientists and monitoring their development from the day they step in.” As upperclass students, about 50 percent of Chemistry majors will conduct research either on or off campus. It’s not uncommon for many of these undergrads to present their research alongside graduate and doctoral level students at major chemistry conferences across the nation. And of course it’s satisfying to send the seniors off as alumni to pursue diverse, interesting and successful careers. “Just the other day I got an email from a former student thanking me for being hard in Biochemistry because it’s paying off now,” she says.

“The equipment the department has allows faculty to conduct high-quality research that leads to publications and grants,” says Loprete. “Our students regularly use the same equipment for class-related labs and research with faculty.” However, she has been around long enough to see Kennedy Hall undergo some changes. One of the five original campus buildings constructed in 1925, the structure has stoic beauty, but that beauty comes with a feeling of antiquity. Since the building was renovated in 1968, the faculty research and teaching laboratories have been updated periodically.

But in terms of the available facilities for students and faculty, Loprete’s ideal lab space would be configured a little differently. Currently, the Rhodes Chemistry labs are designed with traditional long, stationary bench tops. “These days they manufacture movable benches that are more conducive to group work. They might have a screen in the room,” she says. “They also might have a room adjacent to the lab so you can do lectures and go back and forth.”

Loprete is at home teaching science majors in her historic building, but after teaching a nonscience course on AIDS several years ago, she got a different perspective on the Rhodes student. “It’s nice to see that nonscience majors were excited learning about science,” she explains. “Even though they were not interested in science as a career, they still had a healthy respect for it, interest in it and actually had a pretty good aptitude for it.” To nurture an apparent curiosity in a variety of subjects and to support the interdisciplinary goal of the liberal arts education, Loprete dreams of integrating more of the sciences into the overall curriculum. She envisions an interdisciplinary program similar to “Search” in the humanities that would mesh the sciences with various subjects and perhaps incorporate various case studies throughout. 

A Thinking Person’s Profession

Tony Capizzani ’95, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Surgery, 
Case Western University School of Medicine 
Assistant Professor of Surgery, 
Lerner College of Medicine
Cleveland Clinic Staff Surgeon, Division of Trauma, 
Surgery Critical Care and Acute Care Surgery

Tony Capizzani grew up a long way from Rhodes. But as it goes with so many other prospective students, the “beautiful campus with a downtown kind of feel” had him hooked at first sight. How did the young New Jerseyan wind up a Chemistry major? He always held a general interest in science as well as analytical thinking. “My father was a Chemistry major,” he laughs. “So maybe it was something in my blood.”

Capizzani credits the Chemistry faculty as major influences on both his academic and professional trajectories. He cites professor David Jeter and former faculty member Bradford Pendley as key mentors, but he remembers instantly “hitting it off” with the whole department. “I was really attracted to the mentorship they provided,” he says. “We were like family.”

The liberal arts education he received at Rhodes has taken him far in his medical career. “Rhodes taught me more than just how to develop an analytical mind in Chemistry,” says Capizzani. “It gave me great perspective as far as publishing papers.” In addition, the interdisciplinary nature of the Rhodes education taught him how to work with his peers and feel comfortable during public presentations.

After graduating from Rhodes, Capizzani joined a research team at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the division of Experimental Oncology and Hematology. He became inspired by the direct correlation between his work in the lab and treatment for patients. It was that experience that eventually propelled him to medical school at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He then completed his general surgery residency at Wake Forest University, followed by a surgical critical care fellowship at the University of Michigan.

Aside from performing trauma and acute care surgeries at the world famous Cleveland Clinic, Capizzani is an assistant professor at two medical schools—Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Both institutions pride themselves on their clinical and problem-based curricula, as opposed to a didactic teaching style. During his time in medical school, Capizzani remembers learning a topic (“perhaps Biochemistry”) in the first year and then learning its actual application in the last two years. These days, he says, lessons consist of more “problem-based teaching where students learn both topics at the same time, and how basic science is intertwined with disease processes. For example, I teach students a session on pediatric abdominal pain. And within that lecture we may talk about Biochemistry and how it applies to acid/base regulation in a neonatal disease called pyloric stenosis.”

In the learning and teaching departments, he couldn’t have been better prepared.

A Perfect Blend

Ashley Tufton ’13

New Orleans native Ashley Tufton is now in her senior year as a Rhodes Chemistry major. There’s no doubt she has carved her own path here, but one can’t help point out that she is the fourth Tufton to attend Rhodes in the past five years. Not only that, her siblings Margaret ’08 (Biology), Michael ’09 (Biology) and Anne ’10 (Biochemistry) were all science majors. Ashley chalks it up mostly to coincidence, although their father is a dentist. While her family legacy had something to do with her decision to come to Rhodes, it was really the intimate campus environment that attracted her the most.

As a first-year, Tufton found the liberal arts curriculum not only academically stimulating but also key in her decision to pursue a degree in Chemistry. She took a wide variety of classes early on, one of which was an introductory Chemistry course. While she thoroughly enjoyed classes in International Studies, History and Religious Studies, she simply “liked Chemistry the best. The professors were so nice,” she remembers, “and it’s a smaller department so you get to know them one-on-one.” Unlike many students on a science track, Tufton did not have to decide among majors. Often, students will take both Biology and Chemistry classes before choosing one or the other. “I haven’t taken any Biology courses,” she explains. “I really just ended up liking Chemistry that much.”

Tufton is currently conducting research alongside professor Mauricio Cafiero, who happened to be her very first Chemistry instructor. “Dr. Cafiero has been very helpful in introducing me to new fields of study, like Computational Chemistry, which is what I research.” She studies the difference between boronated and nonboronated intercalants in small nucleic acid models. Here’s the translation for the 99 percent of us: Tufton is studying a method for chemotherapeutic drugs to be delivered into the body—important work, especially for an undergrad. In fact, she has presented her research at several conferences, one of which was the American Chemical Society conference, an event that usually hosts anywhere from 10,000-15,000 scientists. Rhodes undergrads often present alongside graduate students and postdocs.

But Tufton didn’t completely let go of her love of the humanities. Thanks to pure interest, she decided to pursue a minor in Religious Studies. She even joined a group of Rhodes students for the Holocaust Studies Maymester in Europe this year. If the academic load doesn’t sound challenging enough, Tufton also participates in her sorority, works the Helpdesk in the library and is serving as the teaching assistant for the Chemistry and Archaeology lab.

Familiar Territory

Sid Strickland ’68
Dean of Graduate and Post Graduate Studies, 
Vice President for Educational Affairs, 
Professor and Head of the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Genetics, 
The Rockefeller University

Sid Strickland grew up in Memphis, so the Rhodes campus was not unfamiliar territory by the time he decided where to attend college. His father, Sidney Strickland Sr. ’36, and sister, Priscilla ’63, were also graduates. “I knew a lot about the college,” says Strickland. “I valued the broad liberal arts education you got there. And I knew at that time, they were already strong in the sciences.” 

Strickland began his undergraduate career as a Mathematics major but after struggling through a required “abstract” math course, he sought the advice of his professor, John H. Christie. Christie suggested that he switch to a scientific field with a strong quantitative base. “So I switched to Chemistry and stayed in it from that point on,” says Strickland. “I realized that this was an area where I could use my interest in and love of Mathematics in a practical way.”

While studying in this new area, Strickland became enthralled with the burgeoning field of Biochemistry. “Rhodes didn’t actually have a Biochemistry course,” explains Strickland. “So I went to see Dr. Lyons.” In keeping with the personalized attention Rhodes students get, Chemistry professor Harold Lyons was willing to guide the young scientist through publications on Molecular Biology. Strickland affectionately recalls that those one-on-one tutoring sessions made all the difference: “At that point, I had found my calling.”

During his senior year at Rhodes, Strickland happened upon a transformative opportunity to conduct research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. His experience working in the state-of-the-art lab helped solidify his research skills at a higher level than was readily available at Rhodes at the time. Strickland is still very connected to the research institution and has been involved in maintaining the strong relationship between Rhodes and St. Jude. 

“The thing that’s great about this connection is that it combines the wonderful aspect of a liberal arts education with personalized attention to students to research at a world-class institution,” says Strickland.

Strickland went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. As an administrator at The Rockefeller University in New York, he oversees all the educational activities at the university. As a professor and researcher, he and his team concentrate on neurodegenerative diseases.

He says he started out as a developmental Biologist, but one day some years ago, his lab observed something fascinating about the nervous system. That was a turning point in his studies. “Neither I nor anyone in my lab was a trained Neuroscientist, but we took a leap of faith.” That leap led Strickland’s lab to gradually switch its emphasis from developmental Biochemistry to Neuroscience. They have led groundbreaking studies in the realms of stress, alcohol withdrawal and, most recently, Alzheimer’s disease.

Strickland came to another important study, one that affects him personally, along what he describes as an “idiosyncratic pathway.” His first science teacher, his sister, Priscilla, a Ph.D. in Biology, was severely affected by multiple sclerosis. “One system we are working on is relevant to MS; it involves how nerves are insulated,” he says. “I never set out to study it. By the same token, if we do something relevant, it would engender a tremendous personal satisfaction.”

Recognizing his considerable contributions to his field, Rhodes awarded Strickland an honorary doctor of science degree in 2006. “I tremendously value my education at Rhodes,” he says. “It was just indispensable for what I have done.”