“We should always be honest and transparent”

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

© Alain Herzog/ 2018 EPFL

Sandrine Gerber first came to EPFL in 2001, and this year she has been named best teacher in the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Section.

When it came time to pick a career, Sandrine Gerber hesitated between chemistry and medicine. She finally chose chemistry, because she “has a hard time seeing people in pain.” But she didn’t totally turn her back on medicine – today her research targets the biomedical industry. Gerber, who has never lost sight of the human side of her work, also serves as a chemistry professor at EPFL where she imparts her knowledge to future generations. Her courses are highly appreciated by students and respected by her peers. She first came to EPFL in 2001, and this year she has been named best teacher in the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Section.

“We have to remember that our role is to educate the scientists and engineers of the coming decades. Teaching should never take second place to research,” says Professor Gerber. Trained as a chemical engineer, she now spends most of her time sharing her know-how and experience. She teaches organic chemistry at the University of Lausanne (UNIL) to over 300 first-year students in pharmacy and biology. “I love teaching first-year students because they are just starting out – we can really influence their impression of university life.” At EPFL, Gerber teaches a first-year course on organic functions and chemical reactions and an optional third-year course on retrosynthesis. This year she decided to give up the laboratory session she’s been teaching to second-year students for the past three years due to her already heavy workload. “I enjoyed the lab session, but a lot of set-up work was required so that the 80 students – all relatively new to the subject – could work safely with organic compounds.” Fortunately, any damage was always limited to a few broken test tubes.

Varying the pace

Professor Gerber was 28 when she gave her first chemistry course: a lecture class to some 200 students at UNIL. She still remembers walking into the lecture hall that day, her heart pounding. “At the end I was exhausted, both mentally and physically,” she recalls with a smile. Today she’s become an old hand and has relinquished her goal of perfection. “You’re inevitably going to make some mistakes during your career, so it’s better to just accept it and always be honest and transparent with your students.”

To keep students’ attention during lectures on complicated subjects, Professor Gerber likes to vary up the pace and switch among theoretical discussions, questions, quizzes, short videos and demonstrations using molecular models. She puts exercises online before each class so that students can prepare and ask their questions in the classroom. “I have no problem explaining the same thing 50 times if needed, but I’m very demanding in terms of what I expect students to learn.” She’s also very demanding with herself; every year she updates her lectures and exercises based on the latest developments in her field. “My goal is to be motivating, well-structured and available for my students.” She still has her excellent organizational skills from her own student days as well as her thirst for knowledge. “You have to keep plugging away – even if you’re not finding the answers you expected – because you never know when you’ll stumble across a real nugget.” Gerber encourages her students and PhD researchers to always stay focused and to think critically, so that they can spot the next breakthrough discovery.

Author: Laureline Duvillard