Meet your professor: Kurt Wiegel

Department of Chemistry



Story by Rachel Streich, Staff Writer

Rachel Streich: Why chemistry? What sparked your interest in the field?
Kurt Wiegel: When I got to college I knew I wanted to be a professor. The only issue was what I wanted to be a professor of. When I started out in college I was a genetics major. The university I went to was Western Kentucky University. I was a recombinant genetics major. That’s what I started out in and I was starting to flounder a little bit. It wasn’t as interesting as I thought it would be, it wasn’t as cool, it wasn’t like it is on TV. I had a very good, very engaging organic chemistry professor named Rob Holman who really helped shape my career and what I wanted to be, and I knew that this was the field I wanted to go into. I blame him. He was a fantastic mentor and a great guiding force in my life.

RS: How did you know right away in college you wanted to be a professor?
KW: I love the college atmosphere. I love a campus. To me there’s nothing more depressing than a campus without students. If you walk around in the summer or in the interim or over spring break and there’s nobody here, it’s really sad. I love the vibrancy of college, I love the energy. There’s a will to college that’s a lot of fun, sometimes it can be annoying, but there’s a real life to a campus that you don’t see at any other level of teaching … I feel like I watch students develop and grow while they’re here in ways that I wouldn’t be able to in any other setting.

RS: What is your favorite part about teaching?
KW: I would say it’s the lecture. I treat each lecture like a mini stage performance and a lot of it is improv. The way I teach there’s more feeding on the energy of the classroom than I would say is typical. If I have a dull class or if it’s a Monday at 8 a.m. and nobody’s there mentally or physically, and it’s just sort of drool slowly coming out of the corner of their mouths, it’s hard to teach that class. It’s hard to get an energy or a vibrancy. Some classes are naturally more energetic than others. I’ve had some 8 a.m.’s that you leave there like you’ve just had three espressos. You’re ready to go. And there are some where it’s just, ‘I want to go back to bed. Why do they hate me?’  So I enjoy staging a lecture.

RS: What do you do to make class interesting?
KW: Well I’m a moving target. I’m always on the go. I’m always moving. I circulate up and through the classroom while I’m talking. I had a colleague when I was in Georgia once that said to me, “Always have your class questioning your sanity. If nothing else they will continue to show up to see what you’re going to do next.” And there’s a lot of wisdom in that. I try to do that. There’s a lot of jokes, a lot of puns I throw in there and weird references. I do a lot of nerd humor that I know is targeted at only two or three people, but I’m a firm believer that limited-audience jokes have a higher concentration of laughter. So I try to keep it light. I try to keep it moving. I don’t use PowerPoint at all. I use all marker or chalk depending. That’s what I try to do to keep people up and going because let’s face it, organic chemistry’s not the most exciting thing to have in the morning. Because of that, I have to do something else to keep the energy up in that room, or they start to drift or I start to drift, and then nobody wins.

RS: What are some of your hobbies and interests?
KW: I have three children, so that takes up a lot of time in regards to hobbies and interests. I do a lot of local theater. I’ve done several plays and musicals in the past couple years. And I am an active and old school role-player: Dungeons and Dragons, Star Frontiers, Top Secrets. I’ve been doing that since I was seven. I actually have a YouTube show in which I review role-playing games. We’re well over 200 episodes. I do it with Rob Mattison who also works here on campus over in LTS … We’ve just been doing it pretty consistently for the past 10 years and we’ve gotten really good responses from people on YouTube who watch it. For some reason I’m huge in Germany, just like Hasselhoff I guess. My favorite comment I’ve ever gotten was someone from Germany who said “Wow, your English is perfect. Where did you learn to speak English?” I guess when you look at my name it says German, German, German.

RS: What is the one of the funniest moments you’ve had in lab?
KW: Once we were doing a water-cooled reaction where we were have water running through these pipes and a guy blew off one of the rubber hoses and soaked down an entire bench. Our sinks have two settings: off and fire hydrant, and his was on fire hydrant. It blew off and he was trying to grab the hose and all it was doing was spraying everybody even more. When he stopped it he had probably a 15 foot radius that was drenched. The next year his sister did the exact same thing in the exact same spot. I had this massive déjà vu where I was like, ‘Why do I think that you’ve done this before? Oh it was your brother.’ So there’s one more sister coming through because I know the family and I’m hoping that if and when she crosses my desk in a few years we won’t have the same thing … If they sit in the same spot I might start issuing ponchos.

RS: What do think is most important for students to take away from college?
KW: Critical thinking. Especially now where everything you see or hear has been funded and has been biased. The first thing I think any college student should be able to do is look at something that someone is telling you and think, what’s their bias, what’s the spin, and is this really true? Analyze what people are giving you and don’t take anything at face value because there’s always spin. Also realize that life doesn’t need to be taken seriously all the time. I love what I do, so there’s no reason to not enjoy what you do as well and have some fun with it every once in a while. I couldn’t work somewhere where I had to be extremely serious all the time.