Fresh Faculty: Jacob Olshansky

Jacob Olshansky is an assistant professor of chemistry. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and chemistry from Haverford College and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. He comes to Amherst after completing his postdoctoral research on photoexcited charge transfer and spin dynamics in DNA at Northwestern University.

Jacob Olshansky joins the chemistry department as its newest faculty member. Photo courtesy of Jacob Olshansky.

Q: How did you begin studying your subject and what made you decide to pursue it?

A: When I came to college as a first -year, I, like many of my peers, wanted to be a doctor, primarily because of the shows “Scrubs” and “House.” Before you can take biology, you have to take introductory chemistry, which is the case here as well, and I just loved that course and my professors so much. I think one of my advisors asked, “Have you looked into doing research?” And I said, “No, I haven’t really looked into that, but is that something I should do?” They said “Yeah! You should do some research over the summer.” So I applied to a few chemistry and biology labs. The one that I ended up being the most interested in was a materials chemistry lab: understanding solid-state chemistry structures, the types of things that you might find in your phone or your computer. That summer after my first year doing research was really eye-opening, and I realized that maybe being a doctor was a nice idea, but understanding the chemistry, the physical mechanisms and the microscopic world that gives rise to all the amazing technology in our lives is a worthwhile pursuit as well. Added to that is the ongoing global climate crisis and the drive for new alternative technologies. I thought, “Well, maybe that’s a really noble pursuit, and I’m really interested in it.” I’m really interested in understanding how technology works and if I can use that interest to actually make a difference and help develop new alternative energy technologies.

As I did more research, I got really interested in light-matter interaction. When light hits an object or hits a material, what happens? You create high energy things, high energy electrons, high energy excitations. That is a really fundamental process for many alternative energy technologies that would in general take the energy from the sun and try to use that as free energy, use that for something useful like generating electricity in a solar cell. Alternatively, there is an area called artificial photosynthesis: mimicking what plants do, so taking sunlight and creating fuel. 

Q: What courses are you teaching this semester?

A: This semester, I am co-teaching an introductory chemistry course with [Class of 1959 Professor of Chemistry Mark] Marshall. Because of the transition from in-person to remote instruction over the summer, the prospect of starting my own course was pretty daunting, so it’s nice to join in with an expert. He restructured the course that he’s been teaching for many years and put a lot of his lectures on-line and I provide support: I take notes on the lectures, run a remote lab section, provide office hours and write discussion sections. It’s a nice entry into the college to work with another seasoned instructor. I really enjoy the weekly discussion sections where I write these worksheets, and I have four sections every Monday, in-person, where I can go around and see how the students are doing on the worksheets. They work together, so it’s a team-based learning approach, and that’s really nice.

Q: What do you hope to contribute to Amherst?

A: I hope I can provide some excitement about research — especially alternative energy research — get students interested in doing research and, hopefully, lower some barriers to entry in traditionally daunting subjects like chemistry, because anyone and everyone can participate. 

Q: What has been your favorite thing about Amherst so far?

A: Definitely the people — my colleagues, but especially the students. My research students are really impressive and I have really enjoyed working with them. The course I’m teaching is a big course. It has 87 students, and I interface with seventy of them every week in person, so it’s been hard to get to know them all, but I’m feeling like I’m getting to know more and more each week, and they’re all really great to interact with. 

Q: Are you currently working on publishing anything?

A: I’m hoping to put together a publication based on data that was actually collected in 2015. While I was a graduate student, I collected a large data set and never got around to analysing it. Then, this summer, I had SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) students. I had two students [Max Hoffman ’22 and Autumn Lee ’23]. I had to give them something to do, but it was all remote. I dug through my Ph. D. data folders, and I found this data set that I thought “Oh, actually this might lead to a publication.” So I had one student come up with a computational model to understand the research, and I had [another] take all the data, make nice plots of it and analyze the data itself. I’m hoping that that would be a nice paper describing: When nanomaterials — the things that I work with — absorb light, how long does the energy created by that photoexcitation stay in the nanomaterial? How long do we have to extract that energy before it recombines? When these materials absorb light, an excited electron is created and then it eventually will recombine and emit light, but how long does that process take? We’re trying to understand that in terms of the geometry of the nanomaterials. 

Q: Are you planning any courses for next semester?

A: I am planning a course on physical chemistry. It’s using statistical models to understand our microscopic world, so again, it’s almost a physics course in some ways, but the applications are very broad. I’m hoping to work in a lot of examples in biology and nanoscience, two areas that I’m interested in and that I think the students would be interested in. I’m also trying to formulate new labs that don’t require as much in-person interaction because that will be a limitation next semester, so I’m going to use some interactive programming labs where we can understand little microscopic particles moving around in a computer program and see how that explains macroscopic phenomena that we see everyday. 

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

A: I don’t have any spare time, I do chemistry in my spare time. 

No. I do have some spare time, I do a little bit of bad baking. I’m not a very good baker, but I do it anyway. I enjoy the Norwottuck Trail at the moment for both running and biking. I go indoor rock climbing but only at weird hours when there is no one else in those rooms.