Kicking Off the CUTF: Synthesizing Knowledge through Case Study Problem-Solving

Hello all! My name is Mike Sobol, and I am thrilled to be participating in the Spring 2022 Chancellor’s Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship. I am a sophomore in the University Honors College pursuing dual degrees in Neuroscience and Politics & Philosophy. This semester, I am working with Dr. Scott Nelson as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) for CHEM 0740: University Honors College (UHC) Organic Chemistry 2. For my Fellowship project, I am supplementing the course lecture material by writing and gradually unveiling two drug-design-based case studies, with problems derived from recently elucidated synthetic approaches. I am also facilitating weekly team-based problem-solving sessions designed to build critical thinking and collaboration skills that are vital in the modern scientific community.

Organic chemistry is often among the most daunting science courses a student will take, and it has a notorious reputation as the biggest hurdle in the pre-health student’s pathway. It requires an intimate understanding of reaction dynamics and the development of a mechanistic language to communicate this understanding. It demands the recognition of patterns and relationships in unfamiliar situations. It takes chemistry from pages in a textbook to building blocks of life. As a student in Dr. Nelson’s UHC Organic Chemistry 1-2 classes, I appreciated the ways in which he wove results from the scientific literature and complex pharmaceutical structures into lectures and problem sets. Rationalizing surprising literature findings and analyzing formidable structures builds valuable problem-solving skills. Most importantly, it generates a clear, instinctive understanding of the foundational principles–such as acid and base interactions, electronegativity, and steric hindrance–that underlie the diversity of organic reactions. As a UTA for the UHC Organic Chemistry 1 course last semester, I realized that developing this pattern-recognition perspective of organic chemistry is the largest stumbling block for even the most talented and hard-working students.

Faced with the challenge of helping students “cut through the noise” of complex syntheses while solidifying the “first principles” on which all organic chemistry is based, I am implementing the case study instructional model through the CUTF program. The case study is a ubiquitous problem-based-learning method in the sciences, encouraging students to move beyond repetition and memorization by applying course topics in research-based scenarios. It challenges students to recognize patterns in novel situations while allowing them to experience the ways in which principles discussed in the course are of use in the laboratory and the clinic. Each week, I will be drawing on the modern synthetic organic chemistry literature to design problem sets. These problem sets will scaffold concepts and, longitudinally, generate a narrative. The first half of the semester will focus on syntheses of anticancer agents, while the second half of the semester will feature COVID-19 therapeutics–a topic of intense contemporary interest. After each lecture, students will have a few more pieces of the synthetic puzzle and may turn to the case study problems to apply their knowledge. Before providing solutions, I will host a weekly team-based problem-solving session, as I believe the best way to analyze one’s understanding of a concept is to attempt to explain it to others. I was first introduced to both the case study method and, more broadly, rigorous chemistry pedagogical techniques by my high school AP Chemistry teacher. Among the strongest sources of inspiration in my academic and personal life, he instilled in me a passion for science education, and I am excited to begin this journey extending his case-study-based educational methods to the UHC Organic Chemistry course here at Pitt. Ultimately, Dr. Nelson and I hope to publish these case studies, sharing them as an educational resource beyond our course and our university.

Aside from my work as a UTA for UHC Organic Chemistry 1-2, I enjoy serving as the Co-Director for Science Olympiad @ Pitt and as a Committee Member in Pitt’s undergraduate chapter of the American Medical Student Association. I am also involved in neonatal infectious diseases research at Children’s Hospital and am an Honors College Ambassador. In my free time, I enjoy reading and distance running (and am looking forward to a marathon in the near future!). Looking beyond my time at Pitt, I hope to go on to medical school. My interest in medicine lies in a population-medicine-based career in a rural setting, in which accessible and relatable health education is of the utmost priority. While I have considered many career pathways over the last few years, the one constant in my plans is teaching; I love both the conceptual and relational aspects of education. With our nation’s significant shortage of primary care physicians and the chasmic disconnect between scientific authorities and everyday people as exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic response, the need for compassionate, relationship-oriented rural physicians is greater than ever. Bringing an education-based approach to rural medicine, I hope to influence patients, communities, and policies. I am eager to engage in the CUTF this semester as an invaluable step in service of the UHC Organic Chemistry courses here at Pitt and in pursuit of these long-term goals.

Here, I am preparing for a Science Olympiad event (Protein Modeling) that is now among those I help to organize at the University of Pittsburgh. I am superimposing relevant secondary and tertiary structural features onto my sketch of the primary structure of the protein of interest before building a 3D model. This is just one of countless applications of the exciting field of organic chemistry!

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