The Pitt Pulse Profiles: George Bandik

by Rachel Kosciusko

“So, why don’t you like movies?”

“That’s a really neat question! Now, I don’t like going to movies, because I have a very difficult time sitting in a dark theater with someone I know sitting next to me and not talking to them. But at home, I still don’t really watch movies, because my attention span is not long enough and I would rather be doing other things.”

This is the guy with the worn out sneakers, fire-truck red shoelaces on one shoe, lime green on the other. The man who enjoys teaching the homolytic cleavage of a halide molecule just as well as sitting down with his daily crossword.  The man who proudly lays claim to an April 1st birthday, as well as a Ph.D. in Chemistry.

This is George Bandik, University of Pittsburgh chemistry professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Chemistry Department.

Dr. Bandik, who shudders to be addressed as such, is not only known for his eccentric fashion choices but also for his leadership and service. He is the recipient of the Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award, the Carnegie Science Center Award for Excellence and the Bellet Teaching Award. He teaches Organic Chemistry I and II, Chemistry for Health Related Professions, an Honors Organic Lab course and the writing course for senior majors. He is involved in the Honors Organic High School Program, the Saturday Science Academy and the local High School Olympics. He is also the faculty advisor of the University of Pittsburgh’s American Chemical Society, the only ACS club in the country with such a substantial level of community involvement.

So why not call him doctor?

“I really honestly and sincerely prefer to be called by my first name,” he says. “Because, you know, that’s my name. I just like that, and I would never want to be called anything else. Now some people like being called with their title and that’s completely fine, I have no problem with that. That’s just not me.”

George breaks down barriers not only by introducing himself as George on the first day of class, but also by embarking on the honorable task of memorizing the names of his 200 students. His class is fast-paced, with no note handouts or PowerPoint slides on a screen, just his examples scribbled out on the chalkboard in the five hundred person lecture hall. Yet despite this simplicity, students are flocking to enroll in George’s class. In fact, many of the students in the lecture hall are not actually enrolled in his class but are coming just to sit in and learn the ways of George.

His secret? When questioned about his charismatic approach George explained that his engagement with his students comes from being able to let his guard down.

“I think a lot of people are afraid to let their guard down,” he explains. “I think a lot of people are afraid to let students know that everybody’s just a person. Except for the fact that in this stage of life I know a lot more chemistry than you, there’s really no other difference, you know, and I think if you approach it that way, you’re good. Unfortunately I think some people think, ‘I’ve got so much education, I’ve got this fancy degree, and that makes me better.’ And that’s a really crappy attitude to have. That bothers me a lot.”

Being in George’s class truly feels like we are being taught by a dear friend. He bounces in every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in shorts and a t-shirt that usually has something along the lines of “10 Great Chemistry Pick-Up Lines,” scrawled across the back. He jogs up and down the stairs of the huge lecture hall chatting and making us laugh, a welcome relief from the fifty pages of notes already inscribed in our notebooks. We hear about how he almost bought a pair of red shoes, but experienced last minute hesitation. How, while he does not usually watch movies, he thinks Fred and George from Harry Potter are wonderful. We chat until the start of class until he announces, “Alright dear friends, let’s begin.”

Along with establishing these tight connections with his students, George actually does a phenomenal job at delivering the needed information in a manner that allows us to comprehend, instead of just temporarily memorize. He builds lecture upon lecture, connecting concepts to various different chemical structures and reactions, and he teaches us how to use logical reasoning to work our way through the problems. More importantly, he always invites us to ask for clarification when we do not understand a concept and he usually asks follow up questions when we have those “what did you just say” expressions on our faces.

George was inspired to teach this way after learning from his own struggles in the large lecture hall setting of Penn State where he attended college. “I went to a big school, Penn State. We had large classes, and I did not enjoy very many of them. Because it was a traditional large-sized class, you went in, you sat down, no one asked ‘Does this make sense, are you confused, can I clarify.’ There was actually no interaction at all. And when I thought about it, I got a good education, but it was not necessarily a good experience. I want people to know that, in my mind, if you do it the right way, you can have a class of 200. And it can be interactive, and people can enjoy coming to class.”

I agree with George; it is all too easy to get lost in the crowd of a densely populated science major at a huge state school. I myself have wondered how a professor could possibly care about me when I’m just one out of two hundred students, and I have felt like a hindrance when I’ve sought extra help from a busy professor. This in turn has made me seriously question my choice on attending a huge university.

This is why I was surprised when I first heard George support the university setting. When I followed up with him about whether or not he supported the big school structure he responded, “I do! Wholeheartedly, for many many reasons. The most important reason I believe in a big school is that I think big schools are the way the world works. When you apply for a job, you’re going to be competing against a lot of other people. And I think a big school gives you that feeling. When you take my class you’re competing against 200 other people. And when you get your first job, you don’t know if you’ll have people that look like you sitting next to you. You could be working with someone from a different ethnic background or a different religious background, and at a big school you meet all those kinds of people. I think that big schools really look like the real world, and I think that’s important.”

With George we have the unusual opportunity of learning real world competition in a class with 200 other students, yet we also get a professor who genuinely cares about our learning experience. Recently we learned about the amount of energy released when different hydrocarbons are combusted, and he decided to light a balloon filled with methane gas on fire. The demonstration resulted in a bang that was probably heard on all fourteen floors of Chevron Science Center. Along with making class enjoyable, George also recruits student volunteers who have performed well in his class to conduct peer-led review sessions during the week. He has so many former students recruited that we have sixteen different review sessions to choose from, all led by different teaching assistants.

By getting to know these teaching assistants, he can write some great recommendation letters when they are all applying to their graduate schools of choice. He also helps us in class with our future goals by pointing out the facets of organic chemistry that tend to show up most frequently in standardized exams like the MCAT.

George reflects on all of this: “I once said, and I still mean this, that when I die, all I want it to say on my tombstone is “He cared.” That’s all. And that is really true. As hokey as it sounds to people (and people who don’t know me and have never been in a class with me do think I’m being ridiculous) I really truly do care about each one of you kids. I really would truly help in any way I could.”

Yes, George is a talented instructor and community leader, but it is also inspiring to note that he is a real person. He plays the organ every Sunday at church, he enjoys gardening and he plays tennis with some of his former students.

George is known not only a friend to his students but he is also a friend to his secretary, the Bunsen Brewery baristas at the Chemistry café, the janitors and all the other personnel he meets around the chemistry building.

He has this style about him that seems to radiate happiness, and as “hokey” as this reads, I am not the only soul to have noticed this about George.

“When I was an undergrad, he says, “My one teacher actually asked me very seriously if I was on some kind of drugs. And I’m like ‘why did you ask me that question?’ And she said because nobody could possibly be that happy all the time. I’m not, I have my down days, but for the most part I think when you get out of bed in the morning you can decide whether you’re going to be upbeat or if you’re going to be miserable. And I try to be upbeat. I don’t always succeed, but I give it my best shot.”