January 22 is “Thank Your Mentor Day”

 Out of my high school graduating class of 400 students, three of us went on to get Ph.D. degrees in chemistry—an amazing proportion that’s a factor of 10 greater than expected.  Was it something in the water?


No.  It was Mr. Sturtevant, our chemistry teacher.  He was enthusiastic, creative, and passionate about chemistry.  He treated all his students (he called us his “little chemists”) with a respect that let us know we were on the cusp of young adulthood.


Thinking back, 35 years later (whoa, has it really been that long?), the memories bubble up to the surface. Learning molecular bonding using gumballs and toothpicks.  Having to stay after school to wash glassware (when I got caught using my squirt bottle inappropriately).  Opening up my copy of “Sienko and Plane (a classic text from that era).


And, then, there was Homecoming Day.  Mr. Sturtevant told us he was going to use chemistry to predict the winner of that evening’s Homecoming football game.  He stood at the front of the class, mixed two colorless liquids in a large beaker, and started stirring.


Nothing happened.


Then, in just a few seconds, the solution turned orange (one of our school colors).  And then, after several more seconds, the solution turned black (our other school color!!).  From that point on, for the rest of the school year, we truly were his “little chemists.” 


I was slightly disappointed several years later when I learned that this chemical reaction hadn’t been discovered by my high school teacher. The Old Nassau Reaction” (a version of the iodine clock reaction, also known as the “Halloween Reaction”) was made famous by Professor Hubert Alyea of Princeton.  (Princeton College’s anthem is “Old Nassau,” and its school colors are orange and black.) 


As the quintessential mentor, Alyea influenced several generations of students.   His influence extended even further, to an entire generation of young Americans, because he served as the inspiration for the 1961 Disney movie, “The Absent-Minded Professor.”  At the request of Walt Disney, Alyea used his mentoring skills to help Fred MacMurray prepare for his title role in that movie.


Here’s a link to a video of Alyea  giving one of his famous chemistry-demonstration lectures.  It’s a great 27-minute video, with his dramatic version of the “Old Nassau” reaction appearing at the very end. 


When I watch the Alyea video, it puts me right back in my high school chemistry classroom.  Mr. Sturtevant found ways to engage both our imaginations and our intellects. 


A decade after graduating from high school, another science teacher from my high school wrote to me and asked if I’d be willing to write a letter of support describing the impact of Mr. Sturtevant on me and my classmates.  I was honored and delighted to write a letter.  We get so few chances to thank those teachers and mentors who made a difference in our lives.  I was even more delighted, several years later, when I attended the ACS National Meeting and watched Mr. Sturtevant accept the 1981 ACS National Award for High School Teaching.


Do you have a mentor who made a difference in your life?     January 22 is your day to remember him or her.  The National Mentoring Month website has a page where you can post your tributes. (If you’re willing to share, please post your tribute here, too.  Just use the “comments” link at the end of this article.)


Randy Wedin blogs from Wayzata, MN. After spending a decade working for the ACS and as a Congressional Science Fellow, he launched a freelance science writing business, Wedin Communications (www.wedincommunications.com), in 1992.

2 Responses to January 22 is “Thank Your Mentor Day”

  1. […] his “little chemists”) with a respect that let us know we were on the cusp of young adulthood. more Published […]

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