This year Hamilton welcomed eight new tenure-track faculty members. Student writers from the Communications office recently interviewed these newest members of the faculty to find out why they chose Hamilton and what they think about their first semester on the Hill. Here’s Wriley Nelson’s ’22 interview with Michael Welsh, assistant professor of chemistry (some answers edited for brevity).
Why did you go into teaching?
I've always loved science. I went to grad school and kept on liking science throughout that. I've always enjoyed explaining science concepts to people and seeing them start to understand more difficult ideas, so I thought I'd make a good teacher.
I also went to a similar college to Hamilton – Washington and Lee – so I was familiar with the environment of a liberal arts college and loved my time there. I wanted to live in a small town and have a small liberal arts community, so I thought a job like this would be something I wanted to do. I got more and more deeply involved in my research, and schools like Hamilton are a great place to be a professor because there’s a good balance between your research interests and teaching. This is the kind of job I wanted.
B.S. Washington and Lee University
Ph.D. University of Wisconsin, Madison
National Institute of Health postdoctoral fellow – Harvard Medical School
Was Hamilton on your radar then? How did you find this particular school?
Not specifically Hamilton. The way this field works is that you’re kind of stuck with whatever schools are looking to fill positions when you think you’re ready to apply. Luckily I applied in a good year, when Hamilton and several other similar schools had openings. I got an interview here. When I came to visit, I had a great time meeting students and I thought the rest of the chemistry department was great. It was a no-brainer to take the offer once I got it.
So how has your time at Hamilton been so far?
Well, it’s been a lot of work. The first few years are always a ton of work because you have to develop your course material from scratch, but it's been fun. I’ve been using my brain in a different way, going from just doing research 100% of the time to dedicating some of it to research.
Could you talk a little about your current research?
I had to spend some time this summer getting my lab set up, but luckily I have two seniors working for me for their thesis projects. It's been fun teaching them and seeing some of my initial ideas get off the ground. I study bacteria cell wall and cell envelope biosynthesis. The cell wall surrounds the bacterial cell and holds it together, and it's the target of many of our classic antibiotics. The basics of cell wall biochemistry were discovered back in the 1950s, but there’s a ton we still don’t understand about how it goes together.
I studied the proteins involved in the synthesis of the cell wall for my postdoc. Specifically, I've been interested in the structure of peptidoglycan in bacterial spores, where it has a modified structure. If we can figure that out, we can learn to make spore peptidoglycan in substrate and from there can study it in-depth. I have a student working directly on some of that for me now.
Is there anything about Hamilton that you’ve found surprising?
Well, people say this a lot, but pretty much everyone you run into here is friendly. I got that vibe when I was here for my interview, and every time I’ve needed help with anything, there have been two or three people willing to offer it. That’s not super surprising, but it’s a pleasant environment. It’s mostly been things I’ve expected.
Could you tell me a bit about your interactions with your students and colleagues?
So far I’ve only taught general chemistry labs, so I’ve had about 60 students total between the two lab sections. They have all been eager to learn. Genchem labs have a lot of baby steps where you’re learning the basics of chemistry, so I know it can be hard to get excited about that. Students often want to branch out after that, but my students here have been into what they were doing.
I’ve been impressed by how prepared they all have been for college. They’re good writers out of the gate and don’t need a lot of coaching, but they also respond well to feedback. In terms of faculty, our department has five people at present. They’re all great, very friendly, they’re smart, and they’re passionate about their different subfields. It’s been fun talking to them about the things they’re interested in.
Before Hamilton, I was working in a biochemistry department with a lot of biologists for my postdoc, and was the only person there trained as a chemist. It’s nice to get feedback from a bunch of chemists.
Have you had any experiences at Hamilton that stand out to you?
I really love sports in general, and I was a Division IIIv athlete, so I’ve enjoyed going to different athletic events around campus. I used to run track and cross-country. At the beginning of the year here when the cross-country teams show up, they do a run from campus to Coach Hull's house out in New Hartford. It’s about a 12-mile run and I went with them this year, which was just a blast for me. I’ve also enjoyed going to hockey games this year, since I’m from Tennessee and didn't have many opportunities to go to hockey games in the past.