If you want your students to be interested in what you’re teaching, you have to have an interest in their activities, too.
That’s the mantra Gretchen Potts lives by, and they are the words she has lived by her during her time as a member of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga faculty.
“To me, we want students to be in class, so we ask them to come to class,” Potts said, “and I feel like we should also participate in the things they’re doing. That’s why I’m supporting them at their events.
“When you make that connection and build that relationship, then they want to come to class.”
Potts, UC Foundation Professor of Chemistry and the department head for Biology, Geology and Environmental Science, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her arrival in Chattanooga.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1996, a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Florida in 2000 and spending two years as a visiting assistant professor at the College of Charleston, she arrived at UTC in August 2002 as assistant professor of chemistry.
“At the time I first arrived here you don’t think about 20 years,” Potts said, “but after you get tenure, you realize if this is your home or not. I certainly have enjoyed my time here and can’t imagine being elsewhere.”
When asked what 20 years meant to her, she said the first word that came to her head was family.
“This is where I come every day; this is where I come on the weekends and where I am at night,” Potts said. “The people I work with, my colleagues and my students are family, so this is where I enjoy spending time.”
During her time at UTC, Potts’ activities include serving as the Faculty Senate president, a UTC Advisory Board member, chair of the Faculty Athletics Committee and a mentor for the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.
Very few faculty members are as visible around campus as she is—as a fan of Mocs athletics, as a social media contributor and for just being involved, period.
Whether it’s an athletic event, concert or some other activity, Potts will likely be in attendance.
“I support all students, but I enjoy athletics,” she said. “My brother was an athlete and I was a trainer in high school, so I really like watching sporting events and supporting our students.
“I will say that I personally believe student-athletes are some of the hardest working students on campus. Other students have full-time jobs or are very active in student government, but I am well aware—because of my experience serving on the Faculty Athletics Committee—of the time that it involves being a student-athlete.”
Her involvement with athletics might be considered next-level. How many chemistry professors have been called on to sing the national anthem at sporting events?
“I can’t tell you exactly how that started,” Potts said. “I feel like it was (retired Chief of Staff) Terry Denniston who kept suggesting I should sing. I remember that it was the first year John Shulman was the basketball coach.”
Shulman was the Mocs men’s basketball coach from 2004 to 2013.
“In the music realm, I’ve been a performer all my life,” Potts said. “I’ve always been in singing groups and people always tell me how they appreciate my rendition of the national anthem because it’s very traditional. That’s because I have a background in opera; my vocal teacher was an opera singer.
“I have performed the national anthem for volleyball, wrestling, softball and then—of course—men’s and women’s basketball.”
Potts was recently named the Biology, Geology and Environmental Science department head after serving in an interim role during the 2021-2022 academic year.
While her academic background is in chemistry, she has been involved in other areas—starting and developing the University’s integrated studies program—before moving into her current role.
How is she able to transition from one subject to another?
“I am what’s called an analytical chemist who identifies and counts things,” she explained, “and I’m probably an ultra-analytical chemist—where I like things very ordered. I think a lot of that has helped me in my other roles. My organizational skills have been applied to all the things that I do.
“Credential-wise, I am qualified in chemistry. I’m not qualified to teach in biology, geology or environmental science, but because I have that science background, I’m able to support the students and the faculty in the things that they need over here.”
She said she learned plenty of new things overseeing BGE as interim head over the last year—including the differences in lab times vs. what she was accustomed to in chemistry.
“For instance, when we were trying to do scheduling, I said, ‘Well, we need to schedule 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We need to try to do this.’ And faculty pointed out to me that we can’t do evening labs because they go out in the field and it’s dark outside,” Potts explained. “That’s something we don’t encounter in chemistry.”
Her ability to adapt to and observe how BGE faculty integrated across different disciplines is similar—yet very different—from the position she had as director for the integrated studies program, a role that ended when she officially was named a department head.
In Integrated Studies, Potts was responsible for program planning and assessment and developed the senior capstone course.
“Integrated Studies was a steep learning curve because that was definitely different,” Potts said. “What I did over 10 years there was become pretty knowledgeable about every degree on campus. When I talked to other department heads, I had to know what their program was so that our students could engage in their program and use those classes.”
Potts has learned a lot in her first 20 years on campus. What will the next 20 years bring?
“Hopefully, retirement,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been one of those very lucky and very fortunate people. I graduated with my doctorate when I was 26, which is younger than most people. Then I did a post-doc for two years, so I’ve been here since I was 28.
“Twenty years from now, I’ll be 68. That would be 40 years of teaching at UTC.”