Professor of Chemistry Laura Kaufman ’97 knows her department
from all sides. While a student, she was selected for the I.I. Rabi Scholars Program, which recognizes incoming first-years with promise in the sciences and gives them research opportunities throughout their undergraduate careers. (Among the labs she worked in was Dean James J. Valentini’s.) She earned a Ph.D. in chemistry in 2002 from UC Berkeley and did post-doctoral work in chemistry and physics at Harvard. Kaufman returned to Columbia to teach in August 2004, and has been the director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department since 2012. She also oversees an interdisciplinary research group that brings together undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students. Kaufman reflected one evening this spring on her path from College student to professor.
She grew up in Bergen County, N.J. Her father was a postal clerk in New Jersey and her mother was a public school teacher in New York City.
Her experiences as a Rabi Scholar were a pivotal influence. “I came in not knowing for sure if I was a science student, but that encouraged me to be more serious about science. Without it, I probably would not have jumped into trying research so early.”
She also took art history, religion, and English and comparative literature classes, and was on the fence between applying to graduate school in chemistry or in English. “As a junior, I was feeling more certain that I was an academic than that I was any particular type of academic. I really liked school and liked the idea that you could think about things and write about things for your job. One thing that finally drew me to chemistry was the idea of doing research and answering questions that no one had touched.”
She specializes in physical chemistry. Her lab focuses on three main subjects. One set of researchers studies how molecules move in supercooled liquids (“think a really viscous liquid or a really fast-flowing glass”). Another studies molecules that can form the basis of organic solar cells.The third explores cells and gels: “We put mini-tumors into the gels that act as ‘mini-tissue’ and try to learn about early invasive events in cancer as it transitions from something contained to something that can metastasize to distant sites.”
She says her primary role as an undergraduate research mentor is to expose students to what science is like outside the classroom. “I remember I found it confusing, how a research lab worked. ‘Oh, so all these people are here and they’re different ages, they’re working on the same problems and they all have their own projects, but it’s collaborative.’ I didn’t understand the landscape of how science was done until I had that experience myself.”
The key lesson she wants undergraduates in her lab to learn is how research functions in an academic setting: “ … how we design the questions we ask and the experiments to answer those questions; how we think about doing controls; how analyzing the data might take more time than collecting the data. That way they can see if they actually like it. You don’t want people to enter Ph.D. programs because they feel propelled forward by inertia.”
Her husband is David Reichman, the Centennial Professor of Chemistry at Columbia. “Sometimes he teaches freshman chemistry in the fall and I teach the spring semester; we walk down the street and it can seem like everyone is looking at us, going, ‘There’s my chemistry professor!’” They have two children, ages 8 and 4.
She notes that freshman chemistry is often the first science class that students take in college. “The most valuable thing I can do for them is empower them to realize they can do it. A few of them will find it really easy. But then there’s a whole section of the class that is intimidated or isn’t as well prepared or just isn’t sure it’s for them or hasn’t had a class that is that fast-moving and rigorous and mathematical. I want to give them the tools to feel confident that they can both understand the theory and apply the theory.”
Her favorite places to be are running around the Central Park reservoir and spending time on the grounds of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. “I live right across from it, and it functions as my back yard or front yard. There are all these different little corners of quiet that you can find there.”
She is reading The Brothers Karamazov — “very slowly. Before that I read A Little Life, which is similarly long. I have to start picking up shorter books because it takes me forever.”
— Alexis Boncy SOA’11
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