Interview with Dr. Raji Viswanathan
Dr. Raji Viswanathan is a professor of chemistry and past Chair of the Chemistry Department. A Yeshiva mainstay for over twenty years, Professor Viswanathan is both loved and respected by her students. In addition to teaching, Viswanathan devotes much of her time to research, and several of her studies have been published. Viswanathan has also held various administrative positions at YU and is the former Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. She sat down for a conversation with The Commentator’s Yadin Teitz.
Could you tell us about your childhood and early life?
I was born and brought up in Madras (now Chennai) in a middle class family that valued education highly. I was encouraged by my parents to pursue my dreams, and was led to believe that anything can be accomplished with hard work and perseverance. Growing up in suburban India in a family of three daughters, I cannot remember ever feeling that, as a female, I would have limited opportunities in life.
How interesting! What sparked your interest in science? How did you decide to become a professor of chemistry?
During my grade school and high school years, I was a very good student of mathematics and science and didn’t have to work very hard. I can’t say the same about literature or history. So, I got interested in pursuing what came more easily to me. Besides, I was also keen on understanding how things worked around us, and as I learned more, my passion for science grew more. I wasn’t sure of my major until I entered college, though I knew it will be one of the mathematical sciences. I finally decided to major in chemistry because the applications of chemical principles to understand and solve many everyday life problems fascinated me. I started to see how chemistry is a central science that also required a certain level of mastery in the other related sciences. I enjoyed my undergraduate major so much that I decided to pursue higher education in a sub-field. I had always wanted to be in academia, and the role-playing game I enjoyed most as a child was pretending to be a teacher! So, you can say that I wanted to be a professor even when I was a child, but not necessarily a professor of chemistry.
That’s amazing that you found your niche so easily. But how did YU come into the picture? Why did you choose Yeshiva?
Why not Yeshiva! As I was completing my postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University, I knew that I would be happy in a position that combined my strong interest in research with my passion for teaching. So, I decided to find a position in a college/university that valued both research and teaching. As we decided to remain in the east coast of the United States, I needed to find a position in the NY/NJ area. Though I had a strong research portfolio at that point, I had no experience in teaching. I got an opportunity to teach for a year at Barnard College as a sabbatical replacement. I hoped that this would open other doors for me later and hence took that opportunity. The next year, I was interviewed and offered the position as an assistant professor at Yeshiva College and my dream came true! As I come close to completing my twenty-fourth year at Yeshiva College, I can honestly say that there is no other place I would rather be or anything else I would rather do. The students at Yeshiva are the best I have seen anywhere and they make my job most enjoyable.
Here’s what I’m curious about: How was the transition to an all-male, Orthodox Jewish environment?
I am a practicing Hindu, so I was a bit apprehensive during the early years of my career at Yeshiva, as I was not very familiar with the environment. But, very quickly, all my colleagues and students made me feel at home. It was clear to me that this was a place of higher learning where there was mutual respect and appreciation and that I would thrive here. I respect and understand the very hectic dual curriculum our students have chosen to pursue, and have never stopped wondering how they can accomplish so much in a day.
I ask myself the same question! But somehow it all gets done (usually). What’s your favorite part of teaching? Which course is your favorite to teach?
I enjoy the interaction with students and practice a discussion-based approach rather than a traditional lecture. I enjoy teaching courses where students come prepared and are eager to learn. The most favorite part of my teaching is when I find that I have successfully explained a difficult concept to the students and see their eyes light up when they have understood it. I enjoy teaching many different courses, and my favorite courses to teach are those where students ask interesting questions and engage actively in discussions. There is no dearth of such courses or students at Yeshiva.
Most of your courses are designated for science majors, but you also teach EXQM courses, designed for students with little or no background (nor interest) in science. I know that for many students, taking an EXQM course is daunting. How do you approach such students? Do you try to instill in them a love of science?
I know EXQM can be perceived as a difficult course by some students, and as not a very exciting course to teach by some faculty. I am quite excited with an opportunity to develop and teach a course for students with minimal background in the sciences. My goal is to expose these students to scientific thinking and share with them my passion for science. My approach assumes that students have little or no background in the sciences, and I constantly redesign my lectures/presentations based on the level of the students in the class. The most difficult part of teaching this class is to engage students who may feel that they are forced to take this class, and may not have an open mind about the course.
Is there a particular chemist/scientist who you look up to?
My role model when I was growing up was my aunt. After completing her doctoral work in astronomy and her postdoctoral training at MIT, she went on to become the director of the largest planetarium in Delhi, India. She has always impressed me, not just by her academic achievements and abilities, but by her humility and strength of character. I always look up to great chemists in my chosen area of expertise, like Professor Roald Hoffmann and Professor Dudley Herschbach. I had an opportunity to work closely with Professor Hoffmann when he was a visiting scholar at YU, and that was an extremely valuable experience for me. I also had the opportunity to interact with Professor Herschbach when he visited YC as a Kukin Lecturer several years ago. They are both Nobel laureates of extraordinary accomplishments, but so humble that they make ordinary scientists like me very comfortable in interacting with them.
Tell me about your own research. From what I’ve gathered, you’re currently researching the nature of protein binding. How do you choose what to research?
My current research is to identify the uniqueness of protein structures that guide them to choose specific binding partners. I enjoy exploring new areas of research where I can apply my experience with research methodologies to problems of current interest. The problems at the intersection of chemistry and biology are most interesting to me. Working on such projects enables me to continue to learn new things, which is the most exciting part for me.
With all that you’re involved in, where do you see yourself in ten years?
I hope to continue to excel in my research and teaching. I have been in administrative positions at Yeshiva College and have returned to full-time as a professor. As much as I enjoyed being an administrator, I enjoy being a professor a lot more! I would like to continue to be a productive scholar and teacher.
How do you spend your time outside of school? What are your hobbies and interests?
I enjoy taking long walks (weather permitting) and cooking. I often experiment with different cuisines. I guess that is the experimental chemist in me!
What’s the best advice you can give to students?
Students should make their best effort to get the most out of every class they take during their undergraduate years. I know students feel that a number of classes will not be of much use in what they plan to do in their future. But every course exposes you to different modes of learning and thinking, and you never know when these skills will come in handy. It is much more important to be familiar with different learning methodologies than to master particular skills. This makes you more versatile and likely to succeed in challenging and changing environments.