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Concerts and Organic Chemistry: An Interview with Dr. Deborah Lieberman

by Abbey Tan (’22)

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Deborah Lieberman, academic director and adjunct professor of organic chemistry here at UC. She runs the undergraduate organic chemistry labs and teaches the evening section of Organic Chemistry I and II. I wanted to get her perspective on the pandemic and its effect on education, as well as how she got involved with the field of chemistry. 

I began the conversation by asking her a bit about her educational background, including how she became interested in science and why she came to UC. 

“I always liked chemistry … I probably at least had a fun chemistry teacher in high school,” she responded laughingly. I was surprised to learn that Dr. Lieberman actually received a dual degree from UC’s College of Arts and Sciences and College-Conservatory of Music. She studied the flute and piccolo and played in the concert orchestra. When asked if she had any favorite pieces, she said, “No, not really, but I do enjoy Bach[‘s music]…who knows if it was written for the flute or not.” 

Dr. Lieberman received her PhD from Brandeis University and did postdoctoral work in various places across the country, including St. Louis and Cincinnati. She met her husband, Dr. Michael Lieberman (whom many of you know from HIST/TECH or Biochem) in a biochemistry class at Brandeis. He worked at UC some time afterwards, and when the department needed someone for chemistry, she arrived to embrace the position. 

Next, I asked her about how the pandemic has affected the structure of her course. “We were here since April cleaning out the labs and videotaping the experiments for online classes,” she said, showing me a Ziploc bag of vials filled with a year’s worth of colorful products. “I don’t think [the situation] is ideal. I understand how students are not motivated to study all the time.”

She showed me the tablet she uses to present and draw structures in lecture. When I inquired about how the online/hybrid model will impact the realm of education, she replied, “I  feel like I can’t give students the full benefit of the lab. There are some things that I’ll keep, though … I’ll still have students turn in their protocols a day early and turn in their procedure and observations in the online report. Before, TAs would sometimes have trouble reading students’ handwriting.” 

Dr. Lieberman also misses being in the lab more often and interacting with the students. “Students would come to my office all the time. I’d go into the lab and poke around, but now I don’t want to get sick.” (She did tell me later, though, that she’s never gotten the flu before, which I found highly impressive.) 

As a current student in the OChem lab sequence, I wanted to know what Dr. Lieberman  hopes all students, regardless of major, background, or career aspirations, can take from the course. “Obviously we want them to learn some organic chemistry … but this might be one of the first classes where we want them to do some real critical thinking,” she stated. “You don’t have to memorize; you have to understand and recognize. What’s the electrophile? What’s the nucleophile? There’s no way you can memorize all reagents and products.” 

After going through my list of questions, we simply talked. We discussed a wide array of topics, from religion to healthcare to family. I was impressed by her resilient attitude and empathy for not only students, but the human condition. As we concluded the interview, I asked her what she was most excited to do post-quarantine. “As soon as they come out with a decent vaccine without too many side effects, I’ll get it. I want to go to the symphony!” 

Thank you, Dr. Lieberman, for your time and insight, and we’re very glad to have you as our professor here at UC.

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