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Michael J. Mungo Graduate Teaching Award: Micky Myrick

A man stands in a room with people in the background

Imagine that you’re three semesters into the University of South Carolina’s chemistry graduate program, and you’re facing a faculty panel as part of an oral defense of your research plan. Just a year-and-a-half removed from your undergraduate days, you’re now fielding questions from seasoned academics.

You freeze. You don’t understand the questions. You don’t know the academic concepts the professors are referencing. And, as your nerves get the best of you, you struggle to call up even basic information from your undergraduate days.

“This is like a death spiral,” says Micky Myrick, chemistry professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and recently named Mungo Graduate Professor of the Year.

Earlier in his career, Myrick saw it happen too many times. But instead of viewing it as the shortcoming of individual students, he saw it as an opportunity to improve the way students were being prepared. So, about 20 years ago, Myrick started systematically inviting his students to lunch during the summer after their first year to help prepare them for their oral defense.

“There's just a body of knowledge they need to have to walk in there and succeed,” Myrick says. “As we do that very first lunch, which is usually in May, I start talking about topics. I ask them what they know about it, I tell them what my experience has been, and I usually make some assignments for them to go read this paper or that book, or it might be to go do something in the lab. And since I started doing that, my students have never failed one of these events.”

"I've never worked harder than when I teach this graduate-level class."

Chemistry professor Micky Myrick, 2023 recipient of the Mungo Graduate Teaching Award

It takes a lot of work on Myrick’s part to give students that individualized attention. But it’s true to form — because when it comes to teaching, Myrick does whatever it takes.

Another case in point: his favorite class, CHEM 747, “Molecular Spectroscopy and Molecular Structure.” Myrick realized many years ago, as students were coming to him with questions, that the course material hadn’t been updated in decades. He’d been teaching the course as he had inherited it, and the professor before him had done the same thing.

“I was really disgusted with myself,” he recalls, for not having realized sooner that the course needed a refresh. So, he took it upon himself to reinvent it from the ground up.

“I took all those notes [from the original course] and I just put them on the shelf and basically haven't touched them for 20 some years now,” he says. “Instead, I started from scratch and thought, ‘Well, what do I want to teach?’ That first year, I wrote 180 pages of new notes for the class that covered topics that had not been in the class that I had taken. And every year I taught it since then, I've tried to add new topics. Now my notes are like 1,500 pages.”

As with the lunches with students, Myrick’s dedication to individual students in CHEM 747 is evident. The course attracts students from all areas of chemistry — organic chemistry, pharmaceutical chemistry, biochemistry, etc. — and Myrick customizes his teaching to make it relevant for the specific students who have signed up.

“I try to adapt it to the people who are in the class and what their needs are,” Myrick says. “I have learned so much teaching this class — and yeah, it's been very, very hard work. I've never worked harder than when I teach this graduate-level class.”

The work pays off. Those lunches don’t just help students pass their oral defense; they also put them on a better path for careers in chemistry.

“When they stand up in front of their committee, I feel like they're comfortable,” Myrick says. “When people ask them a question, they don't panic. And I feel like it carries over into their work. They feel well prepared — and that sets the stage for us to have a good relationship in the lab.”