Leah Witus
Leah Witus

Leah Witus, assistant professor of chemistry at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., was among 25 educators chosen for this year’s Cottrell Scholar Awards given by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

A $100,000 academic award funding the study of catalysts in the human body became a catalyst for developing unrelated science videos that include one explaining how COVID-19 vaccines prevent infections.

Leah Witus, assistant professor of chemistry at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., was among 25 educators chosen for this year’s Cottrell Scholar Awards given by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. Each award is based on proposals that suggest new scientific research in combination with instructional initiatives.

“This award is open to professors in the third year of their tenure track appointments in chemistry, physics or astronomy,” said Witus, 35, whose interest in teaching chemistry came to mind as she studied in the Ann Arbor public schools and did some tutoring. 

“The use of Cottrell funds is pretty open. While they don’t go to me personally, they can be budgeted for my salary while doing the suggested work. A lot of my funding will be used to create summer research jobs for students I can hire, and some will go for supplies.” 

Witus, who won the award based in part on her earlier work with catalysts, submitted her proposal projecting an educational component as creating a new Macalester course to explore scientific communication. Later, devising college course content, often presented remotely, and looking after her two children whose Jewish Community Center daycare was canceled, Witus got the idea for the 10-minute science videos.

“My professional life as a chemist and my personal life as a newly full-time parent merged,” said Witus, who also has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health. “I thought about what I could be doing while the kids were napping and decided on making chemistry videos for them. Then, when they woke up, they could have fun watching them. 

“I realized that even very young kids are ready to learn advanced scientific concepts. Everything that they’re learning is new to them so why not give them these concepts about how molecules work and how chemistry works. They were really receptive to it and learned a ton. I started posting the videos online to share with friends, and parents told me they also learned a lot.”

Animated Videos

Among the subjects covered in the “Preschool PhD” series, available on YouTube, are soap and sunscreen. Witus made them entirely on her own after learning some video-creation software tools to enhance her hybrid teaching necessitated by pandemic distances. She did the animation and the voiceovers.

Witus, who was active with Temple Beth Emeth while living in Ann Arbor, has worked with impressive professors and met her husband, Dennis Cao, in the process. He also teaches at Macalester as a chemistry professor specializing in organic materials.

“I went to Rice University in Houston and decided to major in chemistry because of research I did with a professor,” Witus explained. “I thought it was fun trying an experiment that nobody had tried and discovering new things. The excitement of original scientific research got me hooked. 

“Because I was enjoying research so much, I decided to go to graduate school for a Ph.D. and continue doing research. I went to the University of California Berkeley, and worked for Professor Matthew Francis, who’s now the chair of the Department of Chemistry. He made the lab feel like a family. 

“At that point, I decided to become a professor, and I went to Northwestern University and worked for Professor Fraser Stoddart, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2016, which was after I left. It was an honor to get his note of congratulations when he learned of my award.”

Although there were no scientists in Witus’ growing-up family, she experienced inspiration from her late maternal grandmother, Betty Meyer, who earned a Ph.D. in math when very few women entered that field.

Witus and her husband were pleased that they both could work at a liberal arts college that would allow them more interaction with students, and she is glad that her animated videos are getting attention.

“My hope is that people enjoy the videos for kids and with kids, especially the COVID vaccine video,” Witus said. “The goal is that when people are able to see the world from a molecular viewpoint, a lot of things make sense. Understanding the pandemic we’re in, how viruses spread and why vaccines work shares knowledge beyond the scientific classroom.” 


Leah Witus’ videos can be found by Googling “YouTube — Preschool PhD” or you can watch it below.

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