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Meet Neil Garg of UCLA

Today we’d like to introduce you to Neil Garg.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I am an organic chemistry professor at UCLA. I am from Fishkill, NY originally. When I grew up, I goofed off quite a bit and had some pretty legendary jobs. I sold Cutco knives (door to door), did the Dog Census for the town of East Fishkill, and eventually landed a job at Blockbuster Video.

I went to NYU as a pre-med, got really into chemistry, and decided to pursue that. I worked in research labs and was a Teaching Assistant for three years. I also worked in the dorms as a Resident Assistant. From NYU, I went to Caltech for organic chemistry grad school, worked at UC Irvine as a postdoc, then landed at UCLA. I started at UCLA in 2007 and have been there ever since.

I am an organic chemist, and my research team at UCLA (usually around 20 people, mostly Ph.D. students) discover new chemical reactions. Many of the reactions we have invented are now used by chemists in pharmaceutical companies to make new medicines. The students I mentor in research at UCLA are simply remarkable.

I avoided teaching undergraduate students for my first few years at UCLA. However, in 2010, I taught my first large undergrad class called Chem 14D. This is organic chemistry II for pre-health students (pre-med, pre-dental, etc.). Most students are sophomores. I was mentally prepared to deal with grade-grubbing premeds, but the situation was quite the opposite. The students were brilliant, hardworking, fun, and creative.

I ended up teaching this class for six years. The thousands of students I taught have learned how to solve extremely difficult problems (problems that I couldn’t solve until I was in the Caltech Ph.D. program). The key has been to engage students in new ways.

Here are some of the educational initiatives I have pursued, all with my students:
-Extra credit assignment where students make organic chemistry music videos. The videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times around the world. The best videos can be found here.

-Online tutorials that help connect organic chemistry to health and pop culture (called BACON). These tutorials were developed with students and are being used all over the world (>37,500 students). Checkout: learnbacon.com.

-My daughters and I wrote “The Organic Coloring Book.” This is available on amazon.com and helps children and adults alike see what organic chemistry is all about.

-A smartphone app called Backside Attack. This was made with six awesome students. It is free in the App Store for iOS devices and helps students learn organic chemistry concepts in a fun way.

– A website called QRChem.net. This allows teachers to generate QR codes that link to interactive 3D chemistry structures of molecules. The teachers can show the codes in class to help engage students in their learning.  This was developed by another set of amazing students.

My longtime friend, Dr. Daniel Caspi (Element26), has been the hero behind the scenes.

These efforts have helped to popularize organic chemistry – a class that is typically dreaded by all. The class I teach has been featured in LA Weekly Magazine (one of the best classes in LA) and has been referred to as ‘UCLA’s most beloved class.’ Buzzfeed rated the course as being the 2nd coolest class at UCLA. My website has a few videos on teaching initiatives, such as a TEDx talk.

Most importantly, I am the proud father of four children. My wife, Lindsey, and I met at NYU as undergrads when I planned an ice cream social in the dormitories. Our children are eleven, six, two, and two. The older are daughters, Elaina, and Kaylie (co-authors of the coloring book mentioned above). The younger ones are identical twin boys, Andy and Brendan.

We live in the UCLA dormitories through a program called Faculty in Residence. I consider myself lucky to interact closely with thousands of UCLA students every year.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Nothing has been easy! I think learning how to balance my time is a perpetual struggle, as it is very everyone.  

So, as you know, we’re impressed with UCLA – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
At UCLA, I am most proud of my students. They are remarkable and they inspire me to be a better teacher, advisor, and human being.  At a research powerhouse of a university, what sets me apart from some (certainly not all) of my peers is how passionate I am about education and supporting my students.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I just arrived at Baylor University to teach for a semester as a result of something called the Robert Foster Cherry Teaching Award. It will be fun to interact with non-UCLA students and to live in a few places for a few months. I am also eager to expand my educational efforts to help broaden the appeal and understanding of organic chemistry to the general public.

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Image Credit:

Abby Johnson, Jesse Herring

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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