When Department of Chemistry faculty member Becca Stimson initially began teaching at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2008, she figured she’d be a short-timer in the classroom after a 26-year career in the corporate world.
Heck, chemistry wasn’t even the subject she was teaching.
“I was just expecting to maybe do this for a few years and have some fun,” Stimson recalled. “I wanted to teach in the business school because I had spent the last 15 years in the business world as a global business manager.”
But a one-year stint as adjunct faculty in the Gary W. Rollins College of Business wasn’t the right fit; she was a research chemist at heart, complete with a Ph.D. in chemistry and a long career with the DuPont chemical company on her resume.
The teaching bug, however, had bitten her.
A few years later, Stimson reached out to Dr. Gail Meyer, a longtime member of the UTC chemistry department, to inquire about teaching positions.
It turned out to be the beginning of a next career. Stimson is now in her second decade as a non-tenure-track faculty member at UTC, serving as an associate lecturer of chemistry and the general chemistry laboratory director.
Approximately 30% of UTC faculty are non-tenure-track.
“I think I’ve found my role,” Stimson said. “I don’t feel like a true academic. I mean, I went through the Ph.D. program and at the end of that, you make a decision—you’re either going to be an academic or you’re going to go into industry. That was the route I chose.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Davidson College in North Carolina and a combined master’s/Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Evanton, Illinois, Stimson was hired as a bench chemist—a chemist whose main job is research—for DuPont. She worked in a research lab for several years before moving into technical supervision.
Stimson then had the opportunity “to experience all the different disciplines within a business,” culminating with an extended role as a global business manager. After 26 years at DuPont, she was ready to try something new.
These days, Stimson’s main course load is the general chemistry sequence, which Professor of Chemistry Keenan Dungey, the head of the department, described as a gateway course.
“All chemistry majors, all physics majors, all biology majors, all engineering majors, anyone who’s pre-med takes that first Gen Chem 1—which is often one of their first courses,” Dungey explained, “and it’s a big shock for most students to make that transition from high school to a rigorous college science course. Becca really cares about the students and tries to help them get through it.
“I think what UTC wants to see in our non-tenure-track faculty are teaching-focused lecturers. Becca is a great example of that.”
Dungey noted that Stimson applied for and was accepted into a National Science Foundation-funded summer workshop a couple of years ago, a seven-week-long program on how to make Gen Chem courses more inclusive for diverse student populations.
“I announced it to the department and she raised her hand and said, ‘Yes, I want to do that,’” he said, “and she devoted the time to do that, completed the course and has implemented things in her class and shared those ideas with us to help spread the wealth of the knowledge that she’s accrued to help our diverse students.”
Along with teaching gateway courses, Stimson has developed a new CHEM 1999r course designed to increase retention.
She has made it a mission to connect with the students and help them navigate their early days on campus.
“A lot of the time,” Stimson said, “I think students coming here feel like science is hard, so plain language is helpful. It gives people confidence. You don’t have to be the smartest kid in class to appreciate science. There are all different kinds of ways to appreciate it.
“I guess demystifying it is maybe a better way to say it. We can talk jargon all day long and it makes you look like you know a lot. You can pronounce these big long molecules and that kind of thing, but we need to use plain language.”
Stimson said connecting with people was essential to her DuPont success, where she worked “with a diverse population. As I moved into the business world, I was working with people from around the world—which I loved.”
She brings her DuPont perspectives to the classroom. Over the last few years, she has incorporated a mini-lecture on the Flint, Michigan, water crisis into her lectures.
“I go through the Flint water crisis to show real people,” she said. “They were in a bad situation and had to learn to advocate for themselves. There was obviously science going on there. Being able to grapple with that is a great example of using critical thinking skills in the field of science.
“I think my appreciation for that came from the corporate world because it was a technology company.”
Dungey said she definitely brings a different point of view to the table.
“Chemistry is a very applied science, a very practical science, so I think it helps that she knows what one can do with chemistry outside of a research lab,” he said. “Maybe I work with five grams of material, whereas DuPont works with train car loads of materials.
“The students need to know what’s life like outside the teaching chemistry lab. She helps bring that perspective to them.”
In addition to receiving recognition for her efforts in recruiting and retention, Stimson has had the chance to work with high school students participating in the American Chemistry Society’s Chemistry Olympiad.
What was supposed to be a brief dabble with teaching continues to evolve and grow.
“I did wonder what it would be like to teach,” Stimson said. I don’t have a research program and I’m not interested in that at this point. I’ve enjoyed teaching and I’ve found a place within teaching where I think I’m additive.
“I’m hopefully getting freshman chemistry students more interested in science than they might’ve thought they would’ve been.”