DARRYL AUCOIN: A SCIENCE PROFESSOR’S FORMULA FOR SUCCESS: TEAMWORK, HUMOR AND THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Professor Darryl Aucoin was describing the odd shape of a molecule to his chemistry students. “Did you ever have your umbrella flip inside out?” he asked. “It kind of looks like that.”
To explain how atoms and electrons relate, he showed his students a cartoon with a “great Snidley-Whiplash-looking chlorine atom” (referring to an old TV villain) that was “practically stealing an electron from a poor hydrogen, who is very distressed looking,” said Aucoin, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Sciences.
Aucoin uses analogies to insert humor into the classroom when he is teaching a complicated subject. Most times his creative gymnastics come on the spur of the moment. “I often find that I come up with them in the middle of the lecture and I can’t remember them later when I try to write them down,” he said. The comparisons relieve tension in the classroom—“slow me down a bit so the students can catch up.” He might have to explain the concept two or three different ways, but when he finds an analogy that “clicks,” it makes teaching “really fun.” Then students start to understand the more abstract ideas, which makes all the mental exercises worthwhile.
Prithy Adhikary, a senior, has had Aucoin all four years at Caldwell, in classes and labs and as a freshman advisor. She appreciates his humor. “He reminds me of Walter White,” said Adhikary, referring to a chemistry teacher in the TV series “Breaking Bad.” More important, she said, he is the type of professor students can see about day-to-day academic problems, and “there will always be a solution.”
For Aucoin, connecting with students is a benefit of teaching at a smaller university like Caldwell. In his “Principles of Chemistry” course for nursing students or in his labs for the general chemistry course or the biochemistry class for junior- and senior-level science students, the atmosphere at Caldwell opens up a world of science that is focused not only on knowledge but also on “wisdom”—hence Caldwell’s motto of Sapientia et Scientia, Wisdom and Knowledge. “Knowledge is what you know, and wisdom is how you use it, or your application of the knowledge. And they are both important,” said Aucoin. That is why “you teach classes, but you also show students the practical in the labs.”
Biology major Sudeep Khadka has two labs with Aucoin and appreciates that he is open to students’ ideas. “He always says ‘yes’” to trying projects, said Khadka.
Aucoin and his colleagues in the Department of Natural Sciences encourage student-led research. They have been integrally involved in planning the university’s annual Research and Creative Arts Day and in helping students prepare for the Independent College Fund of New Jersey’s annual Research Symposium at which their work is showcased for statewide business and community leaders.
Aucoin sees how research provides many benefits for students beyond the science; they learn professional skills like adaption, trouble-shooting, “coming up with new solutions, not getting too frustrated, problem-solving” and especially teamwork. “All of my lab courses have students working in pairs,” he said. Students learn how to collaborate. They divide responsibilities, assist each other with data collection and bond and get to know each other better. This “lets them make a friend in the department,” which he points out is especially good for his freshmen.
Aucoin remembers what it was like when he was young and discovering the world of science research in Greenville and Smithfield, Rhode Island. His chemistry and physics teachers at Smithfield High School challenged and encouraged him to pursue science studies in college. Then his freshman chemistry teacher at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, sparked his interest in becoming a university professor. “He also wore a suit every single day, which is where I got that from,” said Aucoin.
He majored in chemistry and biochemistry at Clark and had multiple opportunities to engage in research. “I want to make sure we give that opportunity to our students.” He went on to graduate school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, earning a Ph.D. in structural biology; he did his postdoctoral work at Ohio State University where he focused on nuclear magnetic resonance research, examining the proteins associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Working with another professor, he learned the ropes of teaching by helping train students, setting up labs and working as a teaching assistant.
Aucoin is aware that many of his 80-plus undergraduate students will enter professions that help others, becoming nurses, doctors, physician assistants or drug designers, and he hopes he can inspire them to ask questions like “How can we stop certain diseases from progressing as bad as they get? Can we understand those diseases so we can make better drugs to help people?” He believes these are important questions for students to ask themselves, especially at a Catholic Dominican school that is focused on how to serve the common good and to search for and discover the truth.
For Aucoin, a whole world of discovery is waiting to be explored. He and his wife, Hilary, enjoy the great outdoors, hiking up mountains—everywhere from Colorado to New Jersey, where they can find less-traveled places, “nice little ponds or lakes” and ruins like the Van Slyke Castle in Ramapo. An avid photographer, he always packs a camera—“anywhere we go to pick something that has some kind of mountain view or a lake.” He and Hilary, along with Natural Sciences Professor Agnes Berki, have taken university students hiking to show them “the splendor of the fall foliage.” As international students, Khadka and Adhikary are grateful to discover the beauty of nature in New Jersey and to find that professors are generous with their time. “They are like family,” said Adhikary.
Aucoin gives back to the community, volunteering with the middle school and high school Boy Scout troop at St. Aloysius Church in Caldwell, New Jersey. He is happy to be a part of an experienced team that teaches young people how to camp outside in all types of environments, “giving them survival skills and confidence in their abilities,” he said. As a kid, Aucoin camped outside in all weather conditions, even “when it was only 20 degrees … and I still have my fingers and toes to prove it.”
The skills he learned in scouting—like leadership, character development, citizen training, and teamwork—have proved to be a good foundation for many aspects of life including his schooling and professional work.
Aucoin especially appreciates the teamwork he sees modeled across campus, and this makes his job worthwhile. “Everyone pays so much attention to their students.” The members of his department have good camaraderie. “We all get along really well and we help develop ideas together … and share resources,” he said. The team has the same primary goal in mind: It is laser-focused on the students— “That they know we really care, that we are there. All in it together.” —CL