By Amy Ng and John Vito d’Antonio-Bertagnolli
Helpfulness and clarity, two attributes that students relentlessly evaluate their professors on using the popular site ratemyprofessors.com, can be difficult to achieve for professors of all disciplines. Dr. William Skawinski of the NJIT Chemistry Department, however, excels in these categories, receiving raving reviews for his courses in organic chemistry. Students say that he’s inspirational, very clear, and eager to answer questions. Another review claims that he is the “best orgo professor on campus.” It is unusual to encounter organic chemistry professors who don’t leave students feeling utterly defeated by the subject, but what’s more unusual is that this NJIT professor is blind.
“I enjoy chemistry. Since I was 5 years old, I was interested in chemistry before I even knew what chemistry was. I just found it fascinating.” Skawinski shares. The New Jersey-born professor started losing his vision at the age of 6, but was determined to one day master what he loved. He graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1970, obtained his Masters at NJIT in 1980, and finally received his doctorate at Rutgers Newark in 1991—all in chemistry.
Skawinski’s deteriorating vision made attending college very challenging. “It took me a half an hour to read a page in the textbook,” he recalls. Finally, 6-7 years after his graduation from Stevens, his vision was completely gone.
During this time, Skawinski participated in a mechanical engineering project at NJIT to develop devices to help disabled students work in laboratory environments. These adaptive devices facilitated laboratory work, but he still received help from undergraduate students from time to time.
“When I was a graduate student… I would tutor [undergrads] in chemistry and they would help in the lab. I would watch them exactly and direct them very specifically, and it worked out very well. There were some times when I didn’t want to wait for students, so I would just do things myself. Devices such as a talking balance would make it possible for me to do a few things.”
Dr. Skawinski has been teaching and doing research for 24 years. Some of his research interests include the application of spectroscopic and computational techniques to the investigation of intermolecular interactions, the identification of structural features of molecules responsible for biological activity, and the application of rapid prototyping techniques for the construction of unique molecular models designed as research and teaching tools. He now focuses on teaching, stating that his favorite thing about it is the interaction with the students. “I get a lot of energy from them,” he admits. He has yet to think about his retirement.
Outside of teaching, Skawinski enjoys gardening, cooking whatever he has grown in his garden, and reading history and mystery novels.
“I enjoy what I’m doing,” Dr. Skawinski expresses. “I always have. But there is too much pressure on students today, quite honestly.” He notes that the university has been getting much better students, recognizing that if he were to give the exams that he gives now to the students he had back then, everybody would have failed.
Finally, his reminder to students: “Realize to never give up and to always keep trying. Also, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. The world is going to put enough of that on you already.”
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