Fearn (left) and Hoffmann in the professor's office.

Alum Thanks His Chemistry Professor—40 Years Later

A program typically geared toward current students offered a way for Jeff Fearn ’82 to connect with Nobelist Roald Hoffmann

This story was adapted from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Carolyn Keller

There’s no due date on gratitude—even if four decades have passed. Jeff Fearn ’82 had always meant to thank chemistry professor Roald Hoffmann for the impact his teaching had on his life and career. He just didn’t expect the opportunity to arrive four decades later, via an email newsletter from the University. 

That email mentioned the Thank a Professor program, which the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) offers in the final weeks of each fall and spring semester—allowing students to write anonymous notes of gratitude to faculty who have impacted their learning.

While Thank a Professor is typically aimed at current students, there’s nothing stopping alumni from participating. So Fearn—who calls Hoffmann “the best college teacher I’ve ever had”—sat down to write.

“Dear Dr. Hoffmann, this thanks is a bit late, 40+ years in fact,” Fearn typed.

“I took PChem when you taught the course (in the ’79–80 year I believe) … I credit your approach and your class for turning around my academic career and continuing on with my successful scientific endeavors. I have strived to follow the same philosophy during my career, whether helping others learn the ropes or solving problems. Thank you very much.”

As a sophomore in fall 1979, Fearn had enrolled in Hoffmann’s physical chemistry course, required for his biochemistry major in CALS. 

Jeff Fearn in the 1982 yearbook.
Fearn’s senior portrait. (Provided)

In a course with as many as 100 students, Fearn recalls, Hoffmann made each person feel he was having an individual conversation.

“It wasn’t like ‘I’m the professor,’” Fearn says. “It seemed like he was talking to you one on one.”

But it was Hoffmann’s approach to exams that made the biggest impact on Fearn’s life—and future teaching career.

“I don’t memorize easily,” Fearn admits. “I’d say, ‘Why memorize it, when you can look it up?’”

It was Hoffmann’s approach to exams that made the biggest impact on Fearn’s life—and future teaching career.

Those struggles made exams even more high-stress than usual. But Hoffmann took a different approach to administering them.

He didn’t require students to memorize needed formulas. Of the six total exams, students were allowed to drop their two lowest scores. And to create a calmer space, he’d even lower the room lights a bit and have classical music playing.

“I try to tell the students that [chemistry] is difficult for me, so I understand that it’s difficult for them,” says Hoffmann, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1981 and is now the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor Emeritus.

Roald Hoffmann teaching in a vintage black and white photo
Hoffmann at the chalkboard. (Provided)

“I try to get them to enter my way of thinking as I prepare a test, just as I try to enter theirs as I prepare to teach.”

And as Fearn suspected, Hoffmann didn’t just “seem” to be speaking to students one on one—he was actually doing that, while also switching his gaze in the classroom so as not to make any one individual uncomfortable.

“The emotional contact is very important for the learning process,” Hoffmann says.

“If the student knows that you care for them and care that they learn, they will respond very well.”

While Fearn has spent much of his career in the science and technology sector, he also taught—as a TA at Cornell, as a science and math substitute at a school in Lake Placid, NY, and at a school for youth overcoming disadvantages.

In the classroom, he thought of Hoffmann, and how he too could use strategies to help students learn.

For example, for a short period of time following a test, Fearn’s students could come in, find the right answer for questions they’d missed, and get half-credit for them.

If the student knows that you care for them and care that they learn, they will respond very well.

Professor emeritus Roald Hoffmann

“For me, that was more learning,” Fearn says. “That was my way of trying to interpret how [Hoffmann] would do things.”

Now retired, the professor can still be found in his office for a few hours, nearly every day of the week.

“I miss the teaching. I am very proud of having been a teacher—I hope that comes across,” he says. “Therefore, something like what I got from Jeff was very sweet.”

Top: Fearn (left) and Hoffmann in the professor’s office in Baker Lab. (Serge Petchenyi / CTI–Cornell)

Published June 17, 2024


  1. David Bollinger, Class of 1999

    What a nice story! I agree, Dr. Hoffman was a tremendous teacher. His compassion for his students was as apparent as his love of chemistry. Over the years, I have met & worked with many academics, lawyers, business people, doctors, and others at the apex of their careers, and more than a few of them both know it and let you know it. While Dr. Hoffman was a Nobel Laureate, he never made us feel like we were unworthy of his attention. He expected us to work hard and pay attention, of course, but he didn’t look down on his students. I took the intro chem for chem majors course (though I ended up majoring in biology) that he taught in Fall 1999 and have never forgotten how much I loved his class, nor the impact it had on me, that someone so brilliant could be kind and humble too. In fact, on my bookshelf I still have my copy of Primo Levy’s “The Periodic Table” that he assigned us to read that semester! 🙂

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