August 2, 2020

Janet Asper: In Her Element

Department of Chemistry Chair and Professor Janet Asper

Department of Chemistry Chair and Professor Janet Asper

When Janet Asper took over as chair of UMW’s Department of Chemistry earlier this year, she knew she’d have a big job. What she didn’t expect was the onslaught of emails.

“As a professor, I could catch up on email in 10 minutes,” said Asper, who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh and bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and zoology from Ohio University. “Now, it takes me an hour to work through all my correspondence.”

Screen-time has increased for everyone during the pandemic, said Asper, admitting that video games have kept her three children occupied while she navigates her new role and readies herself and her colleagues to teach courses both online and in the classroom this fall.

But for future scientists and educators, hands-on learning is particularly important, Asper said. That’s why she and her fellow faculty members are figuring out ways to maximize opportunities for students to work in the state-of-the-art labs in the recently renovated Jepson Science Center, while still observing social distancing measures.

“We’ve enjoyed discussing which lab skills are the most critical to teach,” she said, “as well as coming up with remote lab activities students can do from their residence halls or homes.”

As UMW prepares to resume classes next month, Asper is looking to the wisdom she received from Professor Emeritus Charlie Sharpless, with whom she worked for over a decade, and Leanna Giancarlo, who served as chair from 2009-2015, and as interim chair before Asper stepped into the role.

“Leanna taught me the value of transparency and overcommunication,” Asper said. “Charlie encouraged me to take time and think things through when responding to important questions.”

 

Chemistry Chair and Professor Janet Asper helps several students during a previous semester. She and her colleagues are coming up with ways for students to do the hands-on learning that is critical to the sciences, while also observing social distancing measures.

Chemistry Chair and Professor Janet Asper helps several students during a previous semester. She and her colleagues are coming up with ways for students to do the hands-on learning that is critical to the sciences, while also observing social distancing measures.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
A: The students, of course! I love when our alumni tell us that the skills we taught them helped them get a job or earn a promotion.

Q: The most challenging?
A: Channeling my enthusiasm and crazy ideas, and making sure I’m listening to everyone involved so I can see the bigger picture.

Q: What do you miss most about being on the Mary Washington campus?
A: I’ve actually been going to UMW once a week to maintain my equipment and work in my office for a few hours. I miss my colleagues, my students and getting to work in the lab with my equipment.

Q: Have there been any silver linings to this COVID cloud?
A: Getting to spend so much time with my family.

Q: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A: A lot of people do know this, but I’m adopted, and I found my biological family in 2015 when Ohio changed the law allowing adult adoptees to request their original birth certificates.

Q: What’s your motto?
A: Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.

 

Charlie Sharpless Bio

Professor Emeritus Charlie Sharpless (back row, second from right) with his colleagues and students. Sharpless retired from UMW earlier this spring.

Professor Emeritus Charlie Sharpless (back row, second from right) with his colleagues and students. Sharpless retired from UMW earlier this spring.

The Department of Chemistry this spring said farewell to former Chair and Professor of Chemistry Charlie Sharpless after 16 years of teaching, student mentoring, research and leadership at Mary Washington.

Sharpless arrived in fall 2004 as an assistant professor, bringing his expertise in environmental photochemistry and a commitment to involving students in research projects.

Over the years he engaged and challenged students to think critically, develop strong study skills and learn independently, Professor of Chemistry Kelli Slunt ’91 said in a faculty tribute. Sharpless implemented changes to the capstone senior seminar course to improve student understanding of chemical literature and help them better present their research topics.

He played a big role in the renovation and expansion of the Jepson Science Center, working with architects to design the chemistry space and also negotiating appropriate space for other science disciplines. In his last few years at UMW, Sharpless not only chaired the Chemistry Department but took on oversight of the Physics Department as well.

“Charlie’s leadership will leave an indelible mark on our department,” Slunt stated.

Sharpless earned a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences at Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Duke University. There he held a postdoctoral position before coming to Mary Washington. – Laura Moyer, editor, University of Mary Washington Magazine