Ren Wiscons is an assistant professor of chemistry. She received her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College, and completed a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Q: How did you become interested in chemistry?
A: Chemistry was not something that came particularly easily to me — I was not intending to go into chemistry when I started in undergrad. I was actually quite interested in going into architecture. I really liked how structures that people surround themselves with, like buildings, change the way people think about the world, and it also changes the way that we structure our communities and our societies. I found that really fascinating.
But when I went to Oberlin for undergrad, I realized that being on the design and the engineering part of architecture is totally different. It's very specialized in a way that didn't fit well with the way I like to approach projects, which is being able to understand all the pieces. And at the same time, going to a liberal arts college, I was really exposed to a lot of areas of STEM that I wouldn't have been had I gone to another type of institution, so it was taking geology classes that led me to taking crystallography classes. The crystallography really satisfied the part of my brain that was very interested in structures. I realized if I went into chemistry, I [would be able] actually design those architectures on the nanoscale and manipulate them into technologies that affect the way people interact with the environment and interact with each other — in very similar ways as architecture could — but I [could] have a very holistic involvement in the design process as well. That really attracted me to the field. Since then, I've just been really committed to learning more [about] chemistry and problem solving in chemistry.
Q: What are you currently doing research on?
A: My current work focuses on designing small molecules that, when they crystallize, form materials that can serve as replacements for inorganics in portable electronics — so, semiconductors and data storage materials. There are a lot of reasons why this would be an attractive alternative, but the one that I find most compelling is that if we can design electronic technologies that can be dissolved and recrystallized and still maintain their function, then these types of technologies [become] as accessible as a printer cartridge. Anyone who's interested could design a circuit on their computer and print it off. And all of these small molecules that eventually form a semiconductor when the ink dries out could be something that anyone could buy.
And so, I see these technologies that I'm interested in designing as a tool to enable people who are really quite talented at circuitry and electronics, but may not have access to pristine silicon-based materials — to [allow them] to really thrive and design ingenious new technologies based around these organic alternatives. But other features about these potential materials are that they could have higher performance efficiencies, while also being less expensive and less toxic and weigh[ing] a lot less as well — things that the consumer would be interested in as well.
Q: Are you working with students here on that project?
A: Yeah, I have a few students working with me this semester. I have two students that are working on synthesizing some of these molecules — one of the projects is around data storage and another project is around making alternative semiconductors. I've got one student on each of those projects, and I have three students that are learning how to solve crystal structures from x-ray diffraction data.
It's quite unique that an undergraduate institution like Amherst would have an x-ray diffractometer, but when I started here over the summer, the college actually provided me support to purchase and house this x-ray diffractometer, which really opens up a lot of possibilities for the college in the area of materials science research. It makes us extremely competitive, and it's actually my favorite technique. I think it's fascinating. Students love it as well, because it gives them a more hands-on active learning approach to chemistry, especially general chemistry. And so, I've got three students learning how to use this instrument, and I hope to have workshops later on and incorporate it into the general and organic chemistry courses.
Q: What factored into your decision to come to Amherst?
A: I was interested in Amherst because of its pedagogy around teaching and the relationships that are really at the center of the student learning experience here at Amherst. Having gone to Oberlin, I really do believe that having professors that you can humanize is a big part of motivating students to do well in their courses and actually genuinely engage with the material. That is something that I wanted to be a part of and probably one of the primary drivers for why I ended up at Amherst.
Q: How have your first few weeks teaching here been?
A: Very chaotic. I am still trying to learn how to balance all of the different parts of me that have to come together to do research and teaching. I know there's not a lot of mentorship that's required of me in my first year, but I really do want to interact with students. Especially for those that are applying to graduate school right now, I feel like I have a lot of very recent experience that's helpful to those students, and some networking connections that could also help their decision-making process be a little bit smoother. I have been trying to do some of that, but the mentorship part’s the easiest part, because you get to sit with students and chat with them and have really fun conversations. It's really finding the time to prepare for classes and making sure that my lab is a safe space where learning can happen, but also really vibrant research can happen as well. So yeah, just really chaotic.
Q: What are you teaching this semester?
A: I'm co-teaching “Organic Chemistry I” with [Julian H. Gibbs 1946] Professor [of Chemistry David] Hansen and [Academic Manager in Organic Chemistry] Dr. [Lauren] Reutenauer.
Q: What are some of the things you try to convey in your teaching?
A: I try to convey in my teaching things that I found really compelling when I was taking the courses for the first time. The thing I loved about organic chemistry is just how relevant it is to everything we interact with every day. Regardless of your trajectory or how you live your life, you will interact with organic compounds, and they will alter the way that you go through your day, whether it's because they are medicines or because they are dye molecules or because they are organic polymers. Showing students how to start making those connections and seeing them be excited to make those connections on their own with new material is awesome. I also love when students get familiar enough with the material that it becomes just a series of puzzles to work through the rest of the coursework — that is actually a fun thing for students. It’s something I also try and emphasize as we're moving through the semester.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: One thing that I'm starting and haven't really done, at least not consistently, before getting to Amherst is crew and rowing. I'm on a community rowing team in Northampton, and the students that are in my class are familiar with this because sometimes I'll come to class and my hands will just be completely bandaged from all of the blisters. But I really like the physical activity, and I love getting on the river first thing in the morning, even if it is kind of chilly. It's a good way to step away from everything that goes on at Amherst and in the Science Center. I think that that's really been critical for me to stay sane and also stay grounded as I've been working through the chaos of the first few weeks.