Faculty Spotlight

Dr. Darrell Spells
Instructor of Chemistry

March 2022

Dr. Darrell Spells is teaching Organic Chemistry this year in the NCSSM-Online program.

You are a synthetic organic chemist. What is that? What do you do? Why would a HIGH SCHOOL hire someone like that? And how in the world do you teach that in an online environment?

Synthetic organic chemists make all types of carbon-based compounds. Sometimes they are compounds that nature does not make, like teflon, polyethylene, and other plastics. My area of expertise is in making small molecules that are used in making optical materials. For example, in our group we synthesized molecules that are used in liquid crystal displays. Many synthetic chemists synthesize or modify substances that are made in nature, but are either difficult to isolate or have negative side effects. One of the first examples of this strategy is acetylsalicylic acid, better known as Aspirin. By modifying one group on the naturally occurring salicylic acid molecule, the anti-inflammatory properties are maintained but the gastrointestinal irritation caused by the parent compound is decreased. There are some practical aspects to offering organic chemistry in high school. Many of our students take the AP chemistry sequence, and at the college level, organic chemistry is the next chemistry after general chemistry. Many of our students have an interest in organic chemistry as part of their research interests and so often they take my course to learn more about organic chemistry, and often I help them with the synthetic techniques necessary to proceed with their research projects.

In the online environment, teaching organic chemistry can be challenging (teaching organic chemistry always is challenging). We can’t have the regular laboratory experiences that we have in the residential environment. However, we have a number of tools that we can use to facilitate learning in our organic chemistry class. Students work in groups to discuss topics, and we employ computational tools to look at the energetics of reactions. These tools allow students to analyze many of the trends that we teach in organic chemistry without being in the wet lab.

You are a relatively new faculty member on the Online team. What have you learned? What do you think about teaching online, especially something like organic chemistry?

I really enjoy teaching online, but I find that it does take more organization and more front end time. In the residential environment, my students see me every day. In the online format with only weekly webinars, it is imperative that progress is driven through me keeping up content. When I fall behind, it has a deleterious effect on the student experience.

You played Division 1 (D1) football for Duke as an undergraduate, your daughter plays D1 volleyball for Temple University in Philadelphia, and your high school son is a rising star in lacrosse. Obviously, athletics are important to you and your family. How do you see sports, either competitive or intramural, as a part of the high school experience?

At heart, I am a nerdy jock. I love sports of all kinds. I think that having access to sports is an essential part of the high school experience. I love seeing the kids in the gym playing pickup basketball. Not only is it good for their physical well-being, I believe that many of the great relationships that our students build are often forged in our robust extracurricular offerings.

What brought you to NCSSM? Why was this a place where you wanted to work?

Prior to NCSSM, I taught at a number of colleges and community colleges. We lived in the small town of Salisbury, near Charlotte. My wife and I are both Duke alums and we decided that we wanted to move back to the Triangle. She’s a psychiatrist and can work anywhere. I knew several kids during my time at Duke that attended NCSSM, and when the job opened I jumped at the opportunity to work with students of their caliber.

What other interests do you have?

In my free time I spend a lot of time chasing my kids and their sporting activities. As you mentioned above, I have one college athlete and two high school athletes, so that keeps me pretty busy. I am active with my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, where I serve as an officer in my local graduate chapter and also serve as the advisor to the undergraduate chapter at Duke. I love playing golf, so as long as it is not too cold or wet, I get out on the golf course as much as possible.