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Sostarecz’s success formula: Have passion, work hard, ask for help

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – For Monmouth College chemistry professor Audra Sostarecz, the pure science of her job is certainly important.

But Sostarecz is also a big believer in the relational aspect of being a teacher. She was profoundly affected by teachers and professional mentors along her path to being named a full professor in May. Achieving that milestone has only made her more aware of the role she can play with Monmouth students and faculty.

“First and foremost, I hope (the promotion) means I can continue what I’m doing here with Monmouth chemistry students,” said Sostarecz, who joined the faculty in 2006. “I also hope it means that I’m in a position to better mentor some of my younger colleagues.”

Doing so would mean paying forward the relationship she had in her first years at Monmouth with the late chemistry professor, Richard “Doc” Kieft.

“I didn’t have a lot of teaching experience when I came to Monmouth,” said Sostarecz, who had completed her Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University two years earlier. “Doc told me he was going to mentor me, and he did. We really hit it off, for several reasons. He was also from Pennsylvania, plus he was such a great guy.”

In her early years, Sostarecz followed Kieft’s model for teaching, until she had developed a style of her own – a style that incorporates Kieft’s passion for the discipline and for students, while also drawing on Sostarecz’s undergraduate experience at Muhlenberg (Penn.) College.

“I received lots of individualized attention at Muhlenberg,” she said. “I want to give my students here that type of experience.”

In particular, she wants to help students “learn not to fear the process but to engage the process – to do what they’re passionate about and not think about the hurdles – embrace them.”

She also strives to help students understand that it’s normal to not have all the answers.

“In college, I was a hard worker, but things didn’t always come easy for me,” said Sostarecz, who ultimately graduated summa cum laude. “Using academic support services was instrumental to my success. So the message I often give students is, ‘I know you’re struggling. I’ve been there. You don’t have to be a genius to major in chemistry. Have a passion for it, work hard and ask for help.’”

Sostarecz also keeps a keen eye on her students’ potential, remembering the impact it had on her when her a teacher believed in her, helping her take part in the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science.

“Gifted students were allowed to participate, but I was not part of the gifted program,” she said. “It started in seventh grade and went through high school – my brother was part of it. In high school, my chemistry teacher got me cleared to participate. ... For my project, I analyzed sunscreens and their sun protection factor, which is actually a project we’ve done here at Monmouth with freshman chemistry students. I met three times a week with my chemistry teacher. His confidence in me made my love for chemistry even greater.”

Both that teacher and Sostarecz’s high school physics instructor – a female teacher – had Sostarecz and her classmates doing Advanced Placement-level assignments. They also both had doctoral degrees, which inspired Sostarecz to follow that path. She initially thought about attending medical school and becoming a doctor, but a “candystriping” experience convinced her that’s not where her passion was.

She found her passion while interning in the academic support office at Muhlenberg.

“I started with a tutoring program for calculus students, and then I started tutoring chemistry. I ran what I guess you’d call workshops, and I decided I really liked teaching. I wouldn’t say I was 100 percent sure yet that I knew I wanted to be a professor, but I liked learning about teaching and the different ways students learn – verbally, kinesthetically.”

In graduate school, Sostarecz developed another important relationship that also bolstered her skills within her discipline. While investigating Langmuir monolayers – which has since become her specialty – Sostarecz was granted permission to acquire a new piece of equipment for Penn State’s mass spectrometry lab (Langmuir monolayers serve as ideal model membranes for providing insight into many biologically related conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease).

Sostarecz not only developed a close relationship with her contact at the company in Finland that made the equipment, but her contact also put her in touch with a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was doing similar work. Through the latter contact, Paul Janmey, Sostarecz landed a postdoctoral position at Penn’s Institute for Medicine and Engineering.

“I was able to work for two years at an Ivy League school – that’s not a bad thing,” said Sostarecz, who appreciated the school’s interdisciplinary approach to science. “I always tell my students, ‘Don’t be afraid to make bridges.’”

In fact, it was Sostarecz’s students who built another important bridge in her career, thanks to a trip she took with them to an American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago. There, her students met with Colorado State University chemistry professor Debbie Crans. The professor was impressed with the research the Monmouth students were doing and asked them to have their adviser contact her.

“That’s led to a great relationship I have with Debbie,” said Sostarecz, who has since published research with Crans. “We Skype regularly. It helps to be able to talk to someone who’s speaking your own language. And all of that came from a connection started by my students. Debbie even wrote a promotion letter for me.”

Sostarecz values such relationships, including the many she maintains with former students, some of whom have gone on to be professors and/or earn doctoral degrees.

“I’ve been to their weddings and I’ve met their babies,” she said. “Watching the students grow and knowing you had a part in it is very rewarding.”