The small liberal arts community at Albion College allows for close connections inside and outside the classroom. One of the many Albion advantages is the small student to professor ratio that encourages students to build strong relationships with their professors.
This spring, The Pleiad resumes its Between Classes series in order to become familiar with the faculty who make Albion’s education what it is.
Featured in this week’s Between Classes is visiting assistant professor of chemistry Benjamin Appiagyei. Appiagyei is from Kumasi, Ghana. He received a B.S. and M.S. from the University of Ghana, and earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Michigan State University. Appiagyei plans to continue teaching at Albion College.
He currently runs a research lab with the goal of extracting amines from river streams that will synthesize organic molecules. Appiagyei plans to take his research students to the Spring 2022 American Chemical Society National Meeting.
Our conversation was set in Appiagyei’s office on the chemistry floor in the Science Center. I was elated to see how Appiagyei set up the room. Two chairs faced each other, classical music played in the background and shots of espresso were served, creating an atmosphere of comfort and expression.
The Pleiad: What brought you here, to Albion?
Appiagyei: Well, I was very excited about liberal arts colleges during my studies at MSU. I completed my degree in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, and then I was excited about going out of Michigan, just to run away from the cold. And then Albion was looking for a visiting faculty and I was very excited about that. I heard a lot about Albion then and so I was very excited to come here. So I applied, went through the interview, and it went really well.
During that time, I had a couple of interviews, so I had to think through where I wanted to go, and as I said before, I had people who could really tell me more about these colleges. I realized Albion had a really good reputation with students to faculty ratio and I actually like spending time with students and teaching them one on one, so every time you come to my office, if someone is here, someone is leaving, I enjoy that.
One thing that really put me into Albion was the instruments they have here in the chemistry department was quite unique with the liberal arts schools, so I was very excited. And since I came, I’ve been able to do some research that I’ve been able to do, so that’s why I chose to come here.
P: What do you mean by unique instruments?
A: So it’s quite unique to find some instruments like nuclear magnetic resonance, NMR, that is a very robust instrument meant for analyzing organic molecules, you don’t really find them in the liberal arts schools or you don’t find this kind. And there’s so many other instruments like HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) and GC-MS (gas chromatography–mass spectrometry) and at MSU, well, we get that, but when you go to other schools that are liberal arts, you have to go to the big schools to be able to analyze your molecules, but I could do everything from the building so that was very very unique.
P: What was your transition like from MSU to Albion?
A: Actually, I taught for MSU for about six months before I came here, so I’ve had big classes, and I also taught for my advisor who normally had a class of about 350 students, and sometimes he travels during the semester, and I was the senior among the grad students so he would advise me to teach a guest lecture. So I got exposed to a very big class.
I loved it, but it had to have a connection with students in there and you have a lot of students, but you technically don’t know anybody and students don’t really come close to professors, they rather go to their (teaching assistants) and all that. So my transition here has been really nice and I love it because I get to know my students well and I know them by name and sometimes we talk about things other than chemistry. It’s really cool.
P: Have you faced any challenges since your transition?
A: Maybe with my accent, with communicating with my students. But as far as I can think, I don’t have major challenges with the students, they’re very friendly, and they are very easy to teach, and they’re also comfortable to ask questions and to come to me. And that’s the part that actually keeps me going, being able to come to me without any barrier between them.
P: Why did you choose to go into organic chemistry?
A: I actually wanted to go to medical school, so I went through pre-med and when I finished, I went through the interview. I was able to make the interview, but I didn’t get selected for it so I was really down for a while. So I went back to talk to my counselors.
But the education system and the way pre-med is treated is pretty much like that, everybody wants to go to medical school and it’s very competitive. So after I couldn’t get that, I went back to other professors, and they helped me to think through where my strengths were. And I realized I could do chemistry really well and I really loved chemistry, so I ended up taking chemistry classes and started to make my journey in chemistry.
P: Tell me more about your research.
A: I had two students last year, they were really great. One is Enisa (Muhaxhiri) and one is Kayla Smith. They did really good work on my research. My research is pretty much focused on using electricity to do organic reactions but this time we focus on combating amino acids to amines. These amines are very interesting pharmaceutical compounds and we want to be able to take amino acids from waste streams of water and convert them to useful amines for pharmaceutical and chemical industries.
P: What is your relationship like with the chemistry department?
A: It’s great. I think we have a really strong department here. I think it’s one of the reasons why I want to stay. Because they’re very supportive, very helpful, and willing to help you with anything that you’re looking for. The chair is very great, he’s an amazing guy, he helped me through all these different things I need to know to teach, really healthy conversations, how to relate to my student, how to teach my student, I really love it.
P: What is your philosophy on research?
A: Well, to anybody who’s involved in research, there’s no end to it. Once you think you have figured something out, there’s more questions to answer and for me, I think that’s a way to push yourself beyond what people have discovered and see how far you can go and to add to what’s already there.
P: How did you hear about Michigan?
A: When I couldn’t get into medical school, I had to continue to choose a major. I chose chemistry and I finished it in four years, and after that, I worked for my department as a (teaching assistant) for two years. And during that time, I became really close to the faculty and the chair invited me to apply for a master’s program. So I applied, I started it, I loved it. I was doing natural product chemistry.
And then during that time, a faculty from Michigan State was traveling to Sierra Leone to give a talk, that was the time of the ebola outbreak. So he decided to stop in Ghana and wait for information on whether he should go to Sierra Leone or go back to the United States. He decided to give a talk about that, and as part of his talk, everywhere he gave talks, he would give some exams to the students in the department and then recruit students. So that’s how it happened, he gave a talk, gave our exams, and in two weeks time, he emailed me that I have to be in the country in two weeks.
It was shocking. I have not heard of Michigan so I had to Google that, and the one thing that came up was that it was very cold and I did not realize that it was this cold.
P: What do you do outside of Albion?
A: I do a lot of things. Well, it depends on the season too. When it’s summer, I love to run. I run a lot. I play soccer. The chemistry department, there’s a really good group of faculty and students that play soccer. I loved it a lot, it’s something I’m looking forward to in the summer.
During the winter, I don’t do much with outside activities, mainly because of the cold, but the only thing that I’ve done that’s quite exciting is ice fishing, so I went ice fishing the last two weeks and I think it was interesting, but still cold.
P: What’s one of your favorite memories at Albion?
A: Well, some of the students have surely come to me to take a picture with me. I don’t know what they do with those pictures, but they would just, sometimes before class starts, they would kind of just stand by me and take a picture with me. And, sometimes too in the labs, when I’m teaching them something, they’ll take pictures. And some of them have even posted some pictures on my door. So those are very nice moments for me. I love it.
P: What do you love most about Albion?
A: Well I love the community, not just Albion the college, but the community itself. I think it is really nice, and almost everybody knows everyone, I love that. I also have an apartment that I’m sharing with one faculty member who also is commuting, so we stay here one or two days so we get to move around the community, sometimes. So I’ve been to the Blues at the Bohm, and it was fantastic, I really enjoyed myself there.