Prof. Brian Coppola takes on the world

By Joanne Alnajjar
Daily Arts Writer

In his high school yearbook, one student wrote to Dr. Brian P. Coppola: "One day your take on the world will take you far or land you in jail."

His take on the world landed him at the University where, at just 41 years old, this energetic associate professor entertains his organic chemistry students in a way that most can't.

His education began in New Hampshire. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in chemistry, then earned a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But not all of his school days were successful ...

"I was actually not that interested in staying at my first-grade class on the first day," he said, saying he pleaded with his teacher to take him home. "Then on the second day of first grade, I cried to stay and not go home. Go figure."

After teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he moved to Ann Arbor in 1986 to pursue what he called a well-supported endeavor to educate people and flourish in his scholarly interest.

Photo by D.C. Goings/Courtesy of U-M Photo Services
Prof. Brian Coppola has inspired hundreds of chemistry students.
"Because it is not usual to have faculty whose area of scholarly interest is in education-related matters centered in departments like chemistry, U-M has turned out to be a unique and rewarding environment for me to work in," Coppola said.

Since arriving on the University campus, his goal has been to influence in some way every person he meets, and hopefully help them learn something from the encounter. Coppola said one of his greatest rewards is being able to accomplish this goal by teaching.

"The worst thing to me is to cross paths with someone ... and to end up with no impact or change," he said. "Discovery, continuous learning, self-discovery - I want these things for myself so I try to be quite explicit about these things for others."

While his accomplishments and teaching ability are quite obvious to his students - he has won the esteemed Golden Apple award for teaching more than once - there are many more dimensions to Coppola's life. Between working out at the CCRB every morning, surfing the Internet and adding to his extensive collection of various art media, he still finds time to lecture on styles of teaching, as well as read. "I have a backlog of books to read that is probably twice as tall as I am," Coppola said.

He also draws and co-writes a cartoon strip with two of his former undergraduate research students. The cartoon, titled "Under the Hood," appears in a quarterly magazine called The Chemical Intelligencer. Coppola's busy schedule of teaching and research doesn't allow for more extensive art projects, which he said he would be more than happy to explore in his rare spare time.

His music collection, not surprisingly, is a combination of many diverse sounds which he said are used to either reinforce his mood or just "propel out of it." In his collection are titles from Fountains of Wayne, Third Eye Blind, Paula Cole, Billy Joel, Letters to Cleo, The Beatles, The Nylons, Blessed Union of Souls, Barenaked Ladies, Fleetwood Mac and Jewel.

"People should go to museums more, and they should bring their music with them," Coppola said.

Students taking Coppola's chemistry classes say they are not only enthralled by his teaching skills, but by his unique fashion sense as well. Baggy pants, earrings, silver rings and a chain watch are his norm. When asked where he shops, he replied, "What a question! The answer is any place cheap, which pretty much leaves out most of the stores off of State Street!"

Dr. Brian Coppola has made a large impact on his students, his peers and the future of chemistry, but nevertheless manages to remain down to earth through it all. One of his major concerns for the future is the direction of higher education, which he claims is a "consumer-oriented metaphor, and this is dissociative and counterproductive, in my view."

His solution? "I prefer to act in a more classical way: I see students as my collaborators. They bring constantly new perceptions and reactions to the things around them, and a constant source of mutual feedback about the learning process."

In all, his adventurous life more or less abides by his favorite quotation: "One goes as one goes, then one shall see."


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