Solar-powered professor: Dr. David Modarelli wins Passion Award, sheds light on chemistry education


Dale E. Gooding Jr

Dr. David A. Modarelli

As part of The University of Akron’s sesquicentennial celebration — honoring 150 years of our people, place and promises — we are hosting a “Celebration of Academic Excellence” to highlight the history and future of our many academic disciplines.

The University of Akron’s (UA) Department of Chemistry has a long tradition of excellence in teaching and research. The department was founded in 1884 by Dr. Charles M. Knight, who taught the world’s first rubber chemistry courses in 1909, contributing to the rubber boom in Akron. The department later offered UA’s first Ph.D. program, in polymer chemistry, in 1956, laying the groundwork for the University’s world-renowned polymer science and polymer engineering programs. Today, the department is nationally recognized for its mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance instrumentation centers.

Dr. David A. Modarelli, professor of chemistry and director of the department’s Center for Laser & Optical Spectroscopy, is continuing that tradition of excellence. This past spring, he received a Passion Award from UA’s chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars student honorary in recognition of his ardent dedication to his work and students.

Here, Modarelli reflects on the joys of teaching chemistry, and on the key chemical ingredients of the good life: having fun, and being kind.  

You were one of only four UA professors to receive a Passion Award this spring. You were praised, by the students who nominated you, for your “relentless work” in helping them discover their own passions. What is it about your work that you enjoy so much?

I find teaching Organic Chemistry to be a lot of fun. Students in this class have majors ranging from pre-med to biology to engineering, and of course chemistry. The variety of interests, and level of interest each student brings to class, makes it a challenging course to teach. I try to teach them how to think like a scientist and approach every reaction like Sherlock Holmes, or a computer algorithm, would. That is, assessing the information they have been given and using what they have learned in class to deduce how they should proceed at each step of their thinking. Learning that way involves mastering a basic set of principles in order to apply them to a chemical reaction they may not have seen presented in that exact way before, but can answer using a logical approach, and takes a not insignificant investment in time. However, they can learn to use this approach toward thinking through and solving problems in other classes and in their everyday lives.

I also really enjoy the proverbial “light bulb” moments when something just clicks for a student. Each concept we learn builds on those before it, and there’s a certain beauty (to me, anyway) in that continuity. Giving what I feel is a good lecture, where I start connecting dots for them and seeing some heads nod in understanding, makes me feel good. Finally, I really enjoy talking to my students when they stop by my office to ask questions.

That is what I like about chemistry in general as well. The idea that as you learn more you can logically apply that knowledge toward understanding new topics.

What drew you to chemistry — and to UA’s department, in particular — and why is it an important field that students should consider?

I went to The College of Wooster as a biology/pre-med major. During the spring of my freshman year, I took a biology course that just didn’t do much for me and a chemistry course that totally fascinated me. A big part of that difference was in how the different faculty members taught. The biology course seemed to require a lot of memorization, while the chemistry course was presented in a way where each topic seemed to lead seamlessly and logically into the next. Each subsequent chemistry course I took increased my fascination with my major. Wooster requires a Senior Independent Study (IS) for graduation that involves an original research project conducted with a faculty member, followed by a written thesis and an oral defense of that thesis in front of a faculty committee. My project was a continuation of two previous IS students’ work involving a synthesis of a novel pesticide that included a photochemical 2+2 cycloaddition as the final step of the reaction sequence. I really enjoyed what I was doing and decided going to graduate school was probably a better course of action for me than medical school. Finding out grad schools paid me to do what I was paying to do in college was the icing on the cake.

I was fortunate in my graduate career to have chosen a research advisor who really cared for his students, was a superb teacher and overall wonderful person. I first started considering a career in academia at that point. After a postdoctoral fellowship (also with a superb mentor) and a year at Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Pharmaceutical Research Institute, it became clear to me that pharmaceutical research wasn’t my thing, but that academia was, and I subsequently left J&J and took a visiting faculty position at Colgate University, where I taught for three years. I grew up in the Akron area, and when a position opened up at UA during my third year at Colgate, I applied. I joined the department when we were expanding, and by the end of my third year we had grown to 19 faculty. The diversity in the department and potential for in-house collaborations as a new assistant professor was really a great opportunity.

Chemistry is the central science and involves contributions from physics, math, biology and materials science. A chemist’s life is rarely boring since new science is continually being discovered, invented, and in some cases, reborn. Chemistry majors have a variety of post-graduation options. Bachelor’s degree chemists performing research (at a medium-sized company, for example) typically have excellent job opportunities with the median salaries nationwide in the $70,000 to $80,000 range and low unemployment (about 3% in 2019). Students pursuing master’s or Ph.D. degrees tend to have higher salaries, more control over the type of career available to them (and the type of research for those with interests in research), and similarly low unemployment.

In what areas of research do you specialize? What are the problems you most hope to solve?

I’m a physical organic chemist specializing in photochemistry. Early in my career my research involved the study of traditional reactive intermediates (radicals, carbenes) in condensed media (solid state, solution). Since coming to Akron, my group has focused on areas related to solar energy conversion. Our initial work involved the synthesis and time-resolved optical spectroscopy of dendrimers. Over the past ten years or so, we’ve moved into areas studying new chromophores for incorporation into solar devices as well as self-assembly processes, wherein we prepare small- to medium-sized molecules that assemble into highly organized structures using principles learned from biological systems. We use time-resolved optical experiments to gain new insights into how the dynamics within these assembled structures differ from their isolated components. Our goals are currently to prepare functional assemblies that have applications ranging from molecular electronics to solar energy conversion.

What are your responsibilities as the director of the Center for Laser & Optical Spectroscopy? What sort of work is conducted in the center?

Two of my retired colleagues and I set up the center in 2000 as a way to leverage state and University funding, as well as draw recognition from funding agencies. We were not very successful in the former, but we have done reasonably well over the years in securing federal funding. My group has had nearly continuous funding from the National Science Foundation for the past twenty years, while my co-founders both had long-term funding with grants from the Department of Energy. In the past eight years the other two original founders retired, but another faculty member joined the ranks. Initially, research in the center involved a mix of gas-phase and condensed phase (solution) photochemistry and photophysics, including understanding the vibrational chemistry and cluster dynamics in the gas phase and electron- and energy-transfer in solution. Currently my group studies photoinduced electron- and energy-transfer within self-assembled structures in solution while Dr. Adam Smith’s group uses fluorescence microscopy to study cellular dynamics.

What do the next 10 years hold for your field?

I anticipate that solar energy will become more widespread as the price of the components, and the ways they are assembled, decrease in price. I believe organic materials will play a more pronounced role in these devices and will also be used to a greater extent in molecular electronics, particularly those where the electronic devices are powered by light.

What do you enjoy doing outside of the classroom, in your spare time?

I have been practicing yoga on a daily basis for about 20 years and hope to maintain that practice for the rest of my life. I listen to music constantly, as any of my students who have come to my office will attest, and (pre-COVID) enjoy going to see live music. I also live close to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where I like hiking on weekends.

Looking back at your own time in college, what advice do you have for UA students?

Open your minds to possibility. Try to plan for a career you really think you will enjoy. Pay attention, learn from people around you, study hard in a field that really interests you, but save time to have fun. Most of all, be kind to each other, yourselves and the planet.