Prof. Abruña shares his enthusiasm for teaching and research in an interview with The Sun.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

Prof. Abruña shares his enthusiasm for teaching and research in an interview with The Sun.

May 9, 2018

Cornell Chemistry Prof Elected to National Academy of Sciences

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Prof. Héctor D. Abruña, chemistry and chemical biology, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences last Tuesday and shared his enthusiasm for teaching and research in an interview with The Sun.

“It was one of these things that you think about once in a while,” Abruña said about his election, “but you never figure it’s going to happen to you, so when it does, it really catches you by surprise.”

Abruña was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but he earned his bachelor and master’s degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and his postdoctorate from the University of Texas, Austin. He returned to Puerto Rico to begin his academic career in 1982.

Unfortunately, Abruña said that “things did not work as well as I had planned” in Puerto Rico.

“And so after one semester at the University of Puerto Rico, I started looking for another job and I was more than fortunate to get a job here,” he said. “So I started here in ’83 and I have been here ever since. It will be 35 years this summer that I have been at Cornell.”

Abruña calls the 54 Ph.D. students he has guided over the course of his career the “best thing [he has] ever done.”

“I tell my students that on average, they’re a lot smarter than me,” he said. “And I sincerely believe that.”

“But I have a lot of experience and that counts too,” he added. “We have a tremendously talented pool of students here. They might be inexperienced, but then my job is to provide some experience and some guidance and just let them loose.”

He said “the real credit” goes to his students and postdocs since “they did all the work.”

Abruña, who describes himself as an electrochemist by training, currently teaches CHEM 2090: Engineering General Chemistry and CHEM 6290: Electrochemistry.

Although Abruña said that “the vast majority” of the students in CHEM 2090 will not be chemistry majors, he would still like them “to have an appreciation for chemistry at large.”

“You want the students to have an appreciation for what chemistry does, the fact that chemistry is really involved in your everyday life,” he said. “If they can get that out of the course with some basic concepts of understanding, I think that’s more than enough.”

Abruña describes his lecturing style for CHEM 2090 as “part teaching, part performance.”

Addressing the “fear” that many students have about chemistry’s “impossible” reputation, Abruña said that this perception is simply “nonsense.”

“The basic thing is not to fall behind because the course builds on material as it goes on, and if you fall behind early on then you’re going to be playing catch up the entire semester, and that’s really no fun,” Abruña said. “So keeping up with the material is absolutely critical.”

In addition to teaching, Abruña conducts research with students in his lab group. He described the focus of this research as “materials development to enhance the performance of fuel cells, particularly the so-called oxygen reduction reaction, and materials for battery applications.”

Abruña said a fuel cell is a device that turns chemical energy into electricity.

“The advantage of a fuel cell is that it can convert energy into work with very high efficiency,” he said.

The enhancement of the performance of fuel cells would result in “more efficient fuel cells, lower cost fuel cells and longer lifetime fuel cells.”

“We have developed some catalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction that look very good,” he said. “In fact, we’re collaborating with GM and there’s a good chance that when they put a fuel cell-powered car on the market, this catalyst will be part of that.”