Completing the Puzzle
How Dr. Baron’s Love for the Liberal Arts Helped Her Fit Together the Pieces
Written by Jo Kroeker
Professor of chemistry Dr. Lee Baron loves puzzles. “I’ve always liked to problem-solve. I just found chemistry the area where I was able to problem-solve most effectively.”
But while chemistry equations are puzzles she can get behind, word puzzles are not quite her forte. “I can’t spell for squat, and I flip my numbers and letters a lot. Remembering how things were spelled correctly was hard.”
Despite needing a dictionary at every written exam, Dr. Baron took English classes nearly every semester of her undergraduate education at Wittenberg University. She plunged into both the sciences and the humanities and balanced not just equations, but also a busy college life: “I don’t know how I did college. I worked almost twenty hours a week, I was in the Chi Omega fraternity, I wrote for the college newspaper, and I was a science major with all the labs and all the classes.”
Every aspect of her liberal arts education was a piece to the puzzle she did not know she was solving, one that would be solved years later at Hillsdale College.
When she went to graduate school, her goal was to dig even deeper into the chemistry field and enter the chemistry industry, but the challenges and opportunities of graduate school changed her plans entirely. In graduate school, graduate students teach the undergraduate classes: they are the professors in the lab and recitation. To receive credit for quizzes and tests, students must attend the specific recitation sections for which they registered.
Dr. Baron led a recitation section just like every graduate student, but there was something different about her class.
“My research advisor in grad school made the observation that my twenty-person section usually had standing room only. My recitation section had sixty to seventy people.”
Her research adviser realized something she had not — mainly, her talent as a chemistry teacher. But when he asked if she’d ever considered going into academics, her immediate response was no.
She’s been teaching at Hillsdale for over twenty years now.
Even though her recitation sections at the University of Michigan attracted five hundred students, Dr. Baron was a student of the liberal arts. Hillsdale drew her in with its collegial atmosphere and interdisciplinary nature, aspects that meshed with her eclectic research interests and her love of studying outside her field of specialty. “The beauty of Hillsdale is that you have colleagues and even students who can mentor you because it’s so collegial here.”
This collegiality fosters the wide-ranging, inter-departmental nature of her research projects. “In a big university, a student would never go to a different research group to ask a question. In a smaller institution, where there’s this respect and cooperation among colleagues, you can say, ‘Hey, I have a student that’s interested in this. Would you have some time to answer a few questions for them?’ It happens all the time here.”
Relying on this supportive network of colleagues, Dr. Baron loves matching students with internships or research projects best suited to their interests. She attributes the success of Hillsdale students to the core, which requires non-science majors to study the sciences and science majors to study the humanities. For Dr. Baron, the core provides the additional pieces students need to complete their own puzzles.
“You’re coming to college to become the person that you’re going to be in the future, and when you’re in college, you don’t know who you’re going to be. I would have never told you at eighteen that I would be blessed to be at a small liberal arts college where my focus is teaching my students the joy of chemistry — how to do lab, how to do research, how to be an effective communicator to others about chemistry. But when I look back, all the things that happened along the way are a part of where I am now.”
JoAnna Kroeker (but everyone calls her Jo), ’19, exchanged flip flops and eternal sunshine in Fresno, California, for snow-boots and school at Hillsdale, where she studies French and journalism. Former Opinions and current Features Editor of the Hillsdale Collegian, she gives thanks for the coffee and brown sugar Pop Tarts that make school and a weekly newspaper possible. When she’s not writing, she’s tutoring other writers or thinking about writing while doing yoga, baking, or reading.