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For Them You'd Go Back to School

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Summer 1996
Luckman Distinguished Teaching Awards
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William Gelbart, Chemistry

A backhanded compliment from an undergraduate student sums up William Gelbart's pedagogical success. "Professor Gelbart," the student told the 50-year-old chemistry professor, "I really enjoyed the class. But I still hate chemistry."

For a non-major, the subject can be daunting, but Gelbart presents topics with a vigor that makes you want to understand all those Greek-lettered formulas. And comprehension is obviously important to him, as he constantly scans the classroom as if to ask, "Any questions?"

Astonishingly, no one's taking notes. "I like to provide the notes, so that students won't be distracted by writing things down," he explains. "Then they can think about what I'm saying. It's hard to think when you're writing. I resented the fact that I had to do all those mechanical things in school."

The child of mathematicians in upstate New York, Gelbart always knew he wanted to be a scientist, but didn't settle on chemistry until halfway through Harvard. He thus became the one who "left the family business," since his identical twin brother -- with whom, remarkably, he shares a distinct European-sounding accent developed from speaking mainly with each other for much of their childhood - went into math as well.

Gelbart heads UCLA's physical chemistry division. A theoretician rather than a lab scientist, he's particularly interested in the physical phenomena occurring in complex fluids such as blood. He's not just a thinker, though: His trim, athletic physique hints at his abiding interest in sports. He admits that he plays hoops like the football halfback he used to be: Opponents have called fouls on him even before he collides with them.

That same enthusiasm, manifested perhaps somewhat less physically, fuels his teaching. "The guiding force for me is how much I didn't like being a student -- but how much I like what I'm doing now," he says. "I feel lucky making a living doing exactly what I love to do, teaching a subject I still want to learn."

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