Kristine Smetana | Chemists in the Real World
Kristine Smetana began teaching at John Tyler Community College in 2000, while she was still in graduate school and working to defend her dissertation. In addition to teaching and advising students, she is the founding faculty advisor for her college’s Chemistry Club, and has been heavily involved with the club’s activities in support of National Chemistry Week since 2005. She is also a member of the ACS executive committee of Virginia, and has been highly active in the community outreach activities hosted by her ACS local section.
Smetana secured her first chemistry-related job following college after the chair of her chemistry department heard that one of the Governor’s Schools in Virginia (alternative education for gifted, talented and motivated students) was looking for a high school chemistry teacher. He thought the position would be a good match for Smetana, so she interviewed and got the job. She recalls it being a great first job, in which she taught college-level classes to high school students and ran their research program.
What is your major responsibility in your current position?
Teaching, but I also advise over 280 students and have committee work that I am required to do.
What's a typical day on the job like?
I have office hours every morning for one hour, teach straight for three to five hours, then have a few more office hours after class. During my time on campus, students come to my office for advice on classes, scheduling and planning. I spend at least three hours per week prepping for my lab and making sure that everything is ready. I also am the faculty advisor for John Tyler’s Chemistry Club and we meet at least one hour per week with the group and about four hours a week with the officers. More hours are spent when we have our community science events.
Typically, how many days each month do you spend away from your workplace on travel?
I am not required to travel with my job. However, I do travel to the ACS national meetings two weeks each year.
Describe your work environment.
I spend most of my time in the classroom or lab. I have a really nice office all to myself, with desks and chairs for student visitors, a computer, printer, and scanner. When I don’t have students needing assistance, I tend to live in the lab. I like to stay busy — setting up equipment or working with my Chemistry Club students to prepare experiments for our community events. There is a periodic table on my wall, some alchemy posters and lots and lots of chemistry books spanning many different chemistry topics.
Is the environment more fast paced or relaxed?
My environment is pretty relaxed, since we do not have pressure for journal publications. We teach for 16 weeks per semester. My classes are back-to-back, which could seem pretty intense when you cannot eat lunch in between, but it is a very pleasant environment and a great place to work. We do not get "overtime" hours, but many times I do work more hours than required because I teach an online class and tend to make myself available for 5-7 extra evening hours per week.
Other aspects of my professional life are faster-paced. For example, I run a very active chemistry club at the college, manage all of the ACS Virginia section’s Community Activities, and work on revisions of my study-guides and lab manuals. In addition, I will often work countless hours over a few-week time span when we have a community service event, working individually and with the students to put together kits and supplies.
What do you like most about your job?
I really enjoy the students. I have had students who have ranged in age from 17 to 71. I love how these students want to be in school. I also enjoy the small class sizes of 25-30 students, because I really get to know them, and many students need that small class size to succeed. I am also very lucky to have great colleagues and administrators. My dean in particular is a great “boss,” and is very kind, understanding, and supportive of our teaching and advising efforts.
What's the best career advice you've received?
While I was in graduate school, my advisor noticed that I was always sitting outside the lab working with students every day. She suggested that I go into teaching when I finished my Ph.D. She thought I had a gift for explanation
Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?
My students have described me as very energetic and having a passion for chemistry. They say they always smile coming to class, in class and leaving class. I have very few people who drop during the semester. It seems they have "fun" learning. I do not think of myself as the typical chemistry professor but I do get my students involved in all of our chemistry outreach activities, where they become the teacher. I try to make sure the students have memorable experiences, and especially strive to teach them how the world would not exist without chemistry!
Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?
Teaching in the community college is not a high-paying job, but it is so rewarding. I really am a chemical education person; I love to teach the subject, especially to those who have a fear of chemistry and math. I have written lab manuals and study guides that my students have been using for 13 years. I also teach three different types of chemistry courses: general chemistry, college chemistry and a unique course that combines instruction in chemistry related to funeral services and veterinary tech (the latter course is taught at very few schools). My schedule really fits my needs; I teach classes while my children are in school, and I can also find time to be a “soccer and baseball mom.” The school always offers professional development and supports all the development and committee work that I do with the ACS.
What is your favorite ACS resource?
Professionally, I really like and use ACS Journal of Chemical Education. I enjoy looking at the published labs, articles focused on teaching certain topics and the National Chemistry Week and Chemists Celebrate Earth Day magazines we use every year. I love the fun activities for children. My own children have always had fun doing the at-home activities as well.
I really enjoy the students. I have had students who have ranged in age from 17 to 71. I love how these students want to be in school."