11/19/2014 Peter Durantine

The Passions of a Professor: Mentoring, Science and Music

As a Franklin & Marshall College student in the late 1950s and early '60s, Claude Yoder spent hours in the Fackenthal laboratories doing chemistry research under the mentorship of the late Professor of Chemistry Fred Snavely while listening, "at considerable volume," to his favorite jazz musicians, particularly pianist Dave Brubeck and his signature piece "Take Five."

For F&M's longest tenured faculty member, not much has changed since those days. Now the Charles A. Dana Professor of Chemistry, who began his teaching career here in 1966 after receiving his doctorate at Cornell University, Yoder still spends hours at research, but he is the mentor. And he plays jazz piano; the 1962 F&M alum keeps a small electric keyboard on his desk to practice during his down time.

Yoder has many passions -- jazz, rare rocks and minerals -- but none eclipse his love of research and mentoring students. This year, he and his co-authors were noted in "American Mineralogist" for their research paper on a mineral, apatite, found in teeth and bones.

  • For Claude Yoder, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Chemistry and Franklin & Marshall's longest tenured faculty member, working on research with students such as senior Emily Christie, a chemistry major, has been "the most significant experience I've had" as a professor. Image Credit: Melissa Hess

In the "Highlights and Breakthroughs" section of the journal, University of Vermont Professor of Geology John Hughes wrote, "The results of this study are extremely important in many fields and will be of particular interest to those in medicine who study diseases of the bone."

In this occasional feature called "Three Questions," Yoder, who is editor of F&M Scientist, a publication that features the scientific work of F&M alumni, discusses what he learned about mentorship from Snavely, why he chose to teach at his alma mater, and the focus and purpose of his research.

Why is it important for faculty to mentor the student-researcher?

When I was a student at F&M, the most important experience for me was the research I did with Professor Fred Snavely. His influence had a lot to do with my desire to mentor the students the way he did. I could go into his office and we'd talk about my research, but we'd also spend hours talking about books by C.S. Lewis, science fiction, or about the stock market. I attribute my modest success in the stock market to him.

When I came back to F&M after getting a Ph.D. at Cornell in '66, I was very interested in student research. The reason I returned to F&M is because I was convinced that undergraduates could do really important research, something that was not accepted by faculty at most graduate schools. So I started doing research with undergraduates, and that's been the most significant experience I've had here.

Two of my research students-- Scott Moore '74 and Charles Schaeffer '70-- started the Moore-Schaefer Mentorship,. Scott called me one day and he said, "Dr. Yoder" -- Scott still can't get himself to call me Claude -- he said, "Dr. Yoder, I made some money in the stock market and I'd really like to do something for you and F&M." We decided to put his money to work as a kind of carrot that would attract very good students -- students with high SAT scores and high GPAs who had an interest in chemistry -- to F&M. It gives a stipend of about $3,000 to students to do research for about four weeks before they actually matriculate at F&M.

Those who have participated in the mentorship have been among our best students. The research experience, the probing of the unknown, is exciting for a lot of students. I think we get more students like that now because they are exposed to some kind of research experiences in high school. So they come to F&M wanting that experience.

Is the student improved by the experience? Definitely. Not only does it help them to understand something about the scientific method, it exposes them to the real situation of "How do we solve this problem? Here's the question we want answered. Here's a system we want to explore. How do we do that?" It makes a difference in what they decide to do later in life, and that doesn't necessarily mean chemistry.

Those experiences stay with them just like they did with Scott Moore. He would tell you that it was the most significant thing that he did at F&M -- maybe ever. I think it also helps the research student integrate the knowledge they've been picking up in other courses.

Why did you choose to teach at your alma mater, and how has the teaching experience changed since you started?

I was very impressed with my research experience at F&M, and most importantly I was impressed by the rapport that faculty had with the students. That was part of my experience with Fred Snavely. The same was true for (Professors of Chemistry) Fred Suydam and Ruth Van Horn -- essentially the whole department. As seniors, we had parties with the faculty. I think that rapport was really tremendous.

When I got my Ph.D., as was the custom in those days, you would generally think about doing research in industry, so I interviewed at DuPont and I interviewed at two large schools, but I thought, "I can do more research at F&M -- because F&M has pretty good students -- than I can at a large school." It was just a coincidence that they had a job available at that time.  

What have you discovered in your research of apatites?

Apatite contains calcium ions, phosphate ions, and fluoride ions. So there are three different ions in apatites, which are ubiquitous. They are found all over the world. Apatite is important to humans because it is the inorganic part of our bones and teeth. All vertebrates have apatite.

Apatites are interesting because they have so many applications. Our research involves a number of things. First, we found there is water in apatites, which is present in what we call channels. It turns out that our bone not only has calcium ions, phosphate ions and hydroxide ions, but it also has about 6 percent carbonate, similar to the ions in baking soda, and that carbonate percentage changes as we age.

No one knows for sure whether that's related to health issues such as osteoporosis, but our interest is in where that carbonate exists in the three-dimensional structure of the apatite. It turns out there are two places the carbonate can go. The carbonate can replace phosphate ions or it can replace the hydroxide ions in those channels, which are made of the calcium ions. These calcium-ion channels are perfect places for the carbonate because calcium ions are positively charged and the carbonate ions are negatively charged, so they attract each other. You can tell by computer models that the carbonate is most stable when it's in the calcium channels. Well, the fact is, in our bone, that's not where it is. It's taking the place of the phosphate, and we're trying to figure out why that's the case, because it should be in a channel.

We've published quite a bit on this. We have about 15 publications in this area, and almost all of these publications have student co-authors. The students have not only been involved, but they have been very influential in the production of these articles.  Some of my recent students have contributed so significantly to the work that they are the first authors on their publications.

 
  • Charles A. Dana Professor of Chemistry Claude Yoder working on research with junior Linh Tran, a chemistry major, one of the many students he has mentored over his nearly 50 years of teaching. Image Credit: Melissa Hess
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