Recognized this year by The Princeton Review as one of the top 300 educators in the country, Scott Lewis began teaching at JMU in 1999. He completed his undergraduate studies at Northern Arizona University and graduate work at the University of Washington. The chemistry professor teaches organic chemistry lecture and labs and also works with the Harrisonburg Fire Department as the hazardous materials officer. 

What was your response to being named one of the country’s 300 best professors? I am honored to be in such great company. My chemistry colleagues are fantastic, hard-working and fun to be with. Any number of them could easily have been selected as well.

Do you have any classroom quirks? I like to tell little jokes about chemistry when I can. For instance, when discussing osmium tetroxide, I say that if you’re not careful with it, it’s harmful. First, it plates the osmium out on the retinas of your eyes and you go blind. Then, you die from it. But at least you didn’t see it coming. Students always laugh at that — not sure why. 

What’s your funniest teaching memory? Each year, one of the chemistry clubs does a fundraiser for Relay for Life. It’s called “Pie a Professor.” The faculty member that gets the most money in their jar gets a pie in the face from a student. I have been on the receiving end of that several times over the years. At the event, students get to bid for the honor of throwing the pie. One year a student still in my class won the right to hit me with the pie. She just said about 10 times, “please don’t flunk me,” closed her eyes and let me have it. The look on her face as I was clearing out my eyes was, as MasterCard would say, “Priceless.”

What’s the coolest thing you did as a 20-something? Not sure it was the coolest thing, but this was the loudest thing I did. While in graduate school, I inherited a flask full of sodium potassium alloy. It’s a mixture of the two metals that stays liquid at room temperature. You also should know that it’s very reactive with water. One night, really about 2 a.m., a bunch of us grad students decided to play with it in the large fountain out in front of the chemistry building. When it hit the water, it made the loudest boom I’ve ever heard. I was pretty sure we had broken windows on the building, so we left. Luckily for us, we actually didn’t break any university windows. 

What’s the best part about teaching? I enjoy watching students transform during the year-long organic chemistry course. They come in very timid in August due to the reputation organic chemistry has as a hard class. They leave in May full of confidence and knowing they have accomplished much more than they ever thought they could. Second, I really enjoy the top-notch people I get to work with every day. They make this a great and exciting place to work.

What personal academic projects are you working on? My research interests are in the synthesis of fluorine-substituted benzene rings. This is generally a difficult, multi-step process. It’s hard enough that it is never even taught to students taking the year of organic chemistry. These type of compounds tend to be rare in nature as well, with only 13 known natural organic molecules containing a fluorine atom. However, fluorine-containing compounds tend to make great anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, pesticide/herbicide type compounds. Since nature will not make these kinds of compounds for us to harvest, their synthesis is very important.

What are your hobbies? I like to work in my yard and consider myself a very poor landscaper. I also enjoy target shooting with friends. Cops are cool to have as friends, as they have lots of fun stuff to shoot with.

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