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Chemistry teaching assistant brings theory into action

Every student dreads their chemistry classes, worrying that their teaching assistant won’t be able to help or the material will be too dense. But Yingzhao Zhao, who goes by David, has tried to change that in his role as a chemistry teaching assistant at Northeastern.

His hard work was rewarded this spring with the Northeastern University College of Science Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, an award given only to one student every year. Zhao, who has one year left in his chemistry PhD, said he found through his experiences at Northeastern that he really loves to teach.

“Teaching is sharing,” Zhao said. “When I was in undergrad, I always wished there was a teacher who would guide me through the journey. Now, as an instructor, I decided to incorporate my learning experiences into my teaching style.”

His teaching style, he says, focuses on problem-solving and application. Even if students understand the basic theory behind a chemistry concept, they may not be able to apply it to their work. To fix that, he created his own versions of recitation handouts, and they’ve been a success.

“Over the years, I have developed some recitation handouts for general chemistry,” Zhao said. “I usually bridge the gap between theory and practice — practice means problem-solving skills.”

He said students really like the handouts and often mention them in their TRACE evaluations of his recitations. One comment he’s received from a past semester reads, “This course was very well-structured and taught in a way that really helped me to learn.”

Zhao’s research interests lie in organic chemistry, too. He focuses on medicinal chemistry and natural product synthesis, looking at treatments for malaria and leishmania, two diseases that have yet to be eradicated in developing countries.

“When I was working with these projects, I can expose myself to different reactions in organic chemistry,” Zhao said. “Moreover, I can help people with diseases in developing countries because those two diseases are mainly in developing countries.”

He said he got into medicinal chemistry and curing these diseases even more so because there’s no incentive from big drug companies to find solutions. The people suffering from malaria and leishmania are typically poor, so the companies won’t make a profit from curing them.

Now, as he heads into what he hopes is the final year of his Ph.D., Zhao said he wants to do more teaching and research in the future. He’s hoping to publish his popular recitation handouts and be able to train new incoming chemistry teaching assistants.

“I would like to do both,” Zhao said about his future endeavors. “Teaching and research — basically, leave my doors open.”

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