Faculty Profile: Ernie Nolen

Jaclyn Cohen

Founder of the Juggling Club and Professor of Chemistry Ernie Nolen has had a great deal of practice juggling activities. From his own research to his involvement in the Colgate community, Nolen has managed this balancing act quite well.

Nolan worked as a juggler at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA after his junior and senior years in high school; he was actually considering a career in juggling. He opted to follow a more traditional path into chemistry, though, for which he had an inherent inclination.

Growing up in North Carolina, he did the “natural thing” by attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received his Bachelor of Science in Education. He settled on teaching at the high school level, and student teaching when he discovered that he did not feel as versed in chemistry as he ought to.

“I had read the chapters in the book, but I hadn’t any real experience or knowledge,” he said. “I loved the chemistry too much not to go to graduate school.”

Nolen headed west for a change of pace, attending Oregon State, where he received his PhD in chemistry. He followed this with postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania. It was at Colgate, however, where he truly developed an appreciation of organic chemistry.

“Chemistry is unique because you actually get to invent new things,” Nolen said. “I’m like an architect and blue collar worker of chemistry. I get to design molecules that I want to make and then I have to go into the lab and build them.”

Nolen has had the opportunity to realize these goals at Colgate over the last 19 years. Coming here directly from the University of Pennsylvania, Nolen had intended to stay for only a couple of years. His initial attraction to the school, has kept him committed.

“I came to Colgate because of the balance between teaching and research,” he said. “It’s definitely what I wanted. We do really good stuff for an undergraduate college.”

Nolen has been invited to attend a symposium in March hosted by the American Chemical Society honoring undergraduate research, an honor which he was “surprised and excited” to receive.

This is not Nolen’s first accomplishment, as he has had a number of articles published, most recently in science periodicals Organic Letters and Tetrahedron Letters. Each time, he named an undergraduate student as his co-author. Nolen has found this work with his students to be quite valuable.

In fact, while accompanying students on the off-campus study program at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, he found the focus of his research was redirected. His original focus on molecule-to-molecule interaction was merged with a new, biochemically relevant set of molecules. He consequently found the experience not only useful, but also enjoyable.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Nolen said. “You get really close to the students.”

Nolen has always enjoyed this interaction with students and the overall experience of teaching.

“You get to play with people,” Nolen said, “and I feel like I get to do a little bit of that in the classroom. I like organization, but I can’t help but be spontaneous. In my organic chemistry class maybe once a week I give them transmitters and they have to buzz in the answers. I try to keep them involved.”

Nolen himself has been quite involved with the community. In addition to the Juggling Club, he is also involved with volleyball, having been an architect of the plan to build a sand volleyball court in the community. This court is used for tournaments every September consisting of teams of community members and students alike. In fact, alumni often return just to witness this event.

“My hope is that my enthusiasm for my work, teaching and scholarship will remain high,” Nolen said.