Many science majors can concur that chemistry courses require the memorization of massive amounts of material. For Professor Neil Wolfman’s students, general chemistry involves learning not only the basic scientific laws and principles of atoms, but also the basic principles of learning. Neil Wolfman makes his students’ education a major priority – in an interview with him, he said, “I want to give my students the education they deserve – I commensurate with that criteria. I want them to learn not just the material, but also how to think.”
Although he is now one of the most recognized and well-respected professors at Boston College, Neil Wolfman did not immediately know he wanted to commit himself to academia. After he earned his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from New York University and continued to get his Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry at Cornell University, Wolfman developed an interest in the drug development industry. Pursuing this curiosity, he started working at what is now known as Pfizer Inc., where he continued for the following 30 years. In his time there, Wolfman primarily researched autoimmune diseases and muscle regeneration, focusing on drug-specific treatment. He offered insight regarding his most significant life lesson learned while working in the industry realm of medicine, stating, “It is extremely difficult to make a drug. For every drug candidate, only 1 in 2,000 becomes FDA approved.” Following a corporate reorganization, Wolfman turned to academia, assuming the role of professor at Boston College. With his knowledge and degree in chemistry, he began teaching the freshman introductory chemistry course, General Chemistry I & II. After teaching General Chemistry for 18 years at Boston College, many people ask how he is not bored teaching the same course year after year. His response captures both his passion and determination: “The most important part is that what changes every year is the students.” Although his students continuously come and go, one thing remains constant: his first priority is consistently striving to aid students’ success in whatever they deem successful.
It is no secret that Professor Neil Wolfman’s class is one of the hardest at BC. His previous student, Abigail Funari, now a senior who will be attending medical school next fall, commented, “Out of all the classes I have taken at Boston College, Neil Wolfman’s course was one of the most difficult – but also extremely worth it.” He covers topics from basic gas laws to complex electrochemistry, while keeping his students engaged with fun demonstrations, interactive experiments, and popular music to start each class with positive energy. While these gestures appear simple, his coursework is not. Neil Wolfman encourages his students to apply material to problem-solving, leaving no room for laziness or unfocused minds. His method cultivates ambition and mindfulness, enabling students to open their minds and invite both creativity and discipline when approaching problems. While he may have the reputation as a serious professor in regards to the level of commitment he expects from his students, underneath the black fedora and Ray Ban sunglasses is a family man and an avid gardener. Once his students get to know him, they discover the immense love and gratefulness he has for his three children and grandson, whose visits to campus involve the crowding of Neil Wolfman’s students eager to play with him. His family doesn’t stop there – Wolfman considers his students an extended part of his family: “I feel like they’re my foster children while they’re here.” This interconnected perspective he takes when meeting students is translated to his teaching methods as he recognizes each student’s need to be given a chance to succeed.
Neil Wolfman understands how opportunities available at Boston College could inspire students to recognize their potential, which led him to become a member of the Gateway Scholars Program at BC. The Gateway Scholars Program supports first generation students and students of color through biology and chemistry in order to achieve a degree in the natural sciences. The program also prepares students academically and professionally by having a faculty advisor and for many, this advisor is Professor Neil Wolfman. He believes that this involvement allows him to connect with students in a small, comfortable environment, which enables him to help students succeed in their endeavors. All BC students, even those who do not take his course can attest to this, as many frequently see him all over campus, especially in the Eagle’s Nest, having lunch and talking with his current/former students. In the Spring 2017 semester alone, Neil Wolfman had over 200 meetings with students, ranging from freshman to graduate students. This simple activity serves to exemplify just one way in which Neil Wolfman continuously strives to build lasting relationships with his students.
For those students who take his course, Wolfman advises them “to try to keep an open mind when it comes to academics. Students shouldn’t approach academics with tunnel vision because they might miss out on opportunities that might be fruitful.” Just as he inspires his students everyday to excel and realize their fullest potential, his students, in return, inspire him to continue teaching, to continue doing what he is most passionate about. Wolfman explains, “What drives me is wanting to help kids be successful. I understand students have their limitations, but if you have more wins than losses, THAT is unbelievable.”