Wolfman Encourages Exploration In Chemistry

A 7-year-old Neil Wolfman first discovered his love of chemistry after pouring a packet of M&M’s into a bottle of club soda to watch the food coloring dissolve and change the color of the drink. “I thought, ‘That’s it,’” he said. “I want to dissolve M&M’s in club soda for the rest of my life.”

This definitive moment eventually led to his position today as a member of Boston College’s chemistry department.

Wolfman was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and raised in the Bronx by European immigrant parents who were both Holocaust survivors. A graduate of the prestigious Bronx High School of Science in New York City, he attended New York University for his bachelor’s degree before studying at Cornell University for his master’s degree and obtaining a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry.

Growing up in New York City as a first-generation American put Wolfman in a unique position. His parents were extremely protective of their only child, caught in between not letting him branch out into different social groups and encouraging him to explore his interest in the sciences further.

“I can’t say that there was any outward pressure on me to be successful,” he said. “But there was an underlying pressure within me, since my parents survived the Holocaust and a variety of other horrible things. It was obvious to me that I was their hope for the new world in a sense, that I was their rebirth.”

Although a diligent student in school, Wolfman was only able to form superficial friendships with his peers, as family ties constantly kept him at home. With the constant reminder of his family history, growing up was mentally, physically, and psychologically difficult. “I had the assimilation crisis,” he said. “I wanted to be like everybody else.”

Wolfman lamented his lack of having the genuine “college experience” as an undergraduate student due to his familial commitments, and he reflected on the anger and frustration he felt as he compared his situation to those of his peers’.

“College is the biggest regret I have in my life in that I couldn’t afford to leave home,” he said. “If there was one thing I could have done differently, it would have been to go away for college. It felt a bit like my emotional development was a bit retarded because I didn’t live on my own.”

A road trip with friends to upstate New York was a welcome respite from the city during Wolfman’s undergraduate years, but this brief taste of independence only resulted in creating a moral rift between him and his parents. After returning from the two-day excursion, his father expressed his disappointment at what he deemed to be an unnecessary trip.

“I realized then that I had to decide which of the values they [my parents] had imparted on me I wanted to retain and which ones I would want to reject and replace with my own,” Wolfman said.

The drive to become his own person and make up for the lost experiences of going away from home put Wolfman on a straight path to a career as a chemist as he pursued higher education.

Wolfman worked as a teaching assistant at Cornell for two years as a graduate student. It was as a TA that he discovered his talent for connecting with students. This did not go unnoticed by other members of the university, and he was rewarded for his efforts.

He did not initially want to pursue academia, however, instead working in the industry for a biotechnology company. Feeling unsatisfied with his job, he later returned to teaching by applying for a part-time position at every university in the Boston area.

BC was the last school to respond after he received rounds of rejections and unanswered inquiries from other institutions. Wolfman decided to take the initiative and called Larry McLaughlin, the department chairman at the time, to inquire about open teaching positions.

While none were available, Wolfman was invited to give a presentation to BC seniors and graduate students about career opportunities in chemistry. Two weeks later, he received a phone call from McLaughlin asking him if he would like to take up a recently opened position teaching general chemistry part time.

“I’m so grateful that he hired me to do this, because this has been an absolutely incredible experience for me,” Wolfman said. “Every year the material is basically the same, but every year the kids are different, and that’s what makes it so gratifying.”

He takes an interest in keeping up with current trends in the college scene, especially with popular music, believing that the connection between science and music is beneficial for the brain.

Wolfman hopes to extend his passion for teaching chemistry to the students he has taught over the years, but there are many struggles he must face as a teacher. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for teaching is not diminished in the slightest.

Wolfman is devoted to helping students find their path through life, drawing inspiration from his own teachers in the past who had influenced him.
“I want you to walk out of that room and be able to think critically,” he said. “I want you to know how to problem solve. I want you to come out of this class and be able to take in information, think about it, and say what it’s telling you. I want to know that I’ve helped you to be able to think.”

He encourages students to be more open-minded to the opportunities available to students while in college.

“I recognize that this is a competitive environment, but you should try not to let your perceptions of what your peers are doing influence yourself too much,” he said. “Everybody has to find their own way, and nobody goes from Point A to Point B in a straight line. So take advantage, be open-minded, and just sample the waters as much as possible, because you never know where that’s going to lead.”

Wolfman’s motto, “Try to do the right thing,” is something he lives through example.

“I can’t say that I’m successful in every single circumstance. I want to try to do the right thing,” he said. “I feel that my job here goes beyond teaching the class. I feel like my job here is to enable the success of as many kids as possible, however they define success. I can get no greater satisfaction than that.”

Featured Image by Emily Sadeghian / Heights Editor

November 2, 2014