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Dr. Byron Hempel | Where Are They Now?

Byron Hempel Chemistry Biological-Chemistry BS 2014 Teaches Environmental Engineering at University of Arizona and Climbs Mount Lemmon. 

This interview is part of a series conducted by the department called, "UK Chemistry Alumni: Where Are They Now." This interview was coordinated by Dr. Arthur Cammers.

Summer 2014, Arthur Cammers and Byron Hempel, after success on the iconic traditional rock climbing route, The Quest, in a light rain at Red River Gorge, Middle Small Wall!

Arthur: You bounced back to visit the family?

Byron: I did! It's great to get back into town after being away for so long.  I currently live in Tucson, AZ, and enjoy coming back to the Lexington area around two times a year.  I am also catching up with a few friends from undergrad as well!  

Arthur: I’m aware of your successful brothers. Do you feel like a black sheep in the family since you didn’t go to medical school?

Byron: Haha, it's a running joke in the family that because I didn't go to medical school, but instead went for a PhD, that I'm the black sheep. At this point, I think they have come to accept my deviation from the plan of having all the children as medical doctors.  

Arthur: We do these spotlight interviews to inform and inspire current and future students, and to show them that they can make a career out of chemistry … that chemistry degrees open doors. I think you have had a unique path after your Chemistry Bachelor of Science degree. You are into environmental engineering now … U. Arizona, right?

Byron: That's right! It relates to your last question, really.  I had a hard time transitioning out of the medical path and towards academia going against the expectations placed on me at an early age. I led ChemExcel and Organic Workshops while in undergrad and found out I loved teaching.  My mentor at the time, Dr. Kenneth Campbell, convinced me that it would be a good idea to go into academia. I went to graduate school at UofA, found out I still loved teaching, and switched to being a career-track faculty member.  I'm now an Assistant Professor of Practice in Environmental Engineering!  

Arthur: What was the transition like switching from Chemistry to Environmental Engineering? Shifting gears from undergraduate intensity level to graduate intensity level is rough enough.

Byron: I'm not going to lie; the transition was hard.  I took a few math courses in undergrad to try and prepare myself, but I had a difficult transition into engineering. I also took a few undergraduate engineering courses in graduate school to help supplement my background.  Luckily, environmental engineering is a wonderful blend of chemistry, physics, biology, and math, so I only had to build up my math and change my perspectives on approaching problems.  

Arthur: You’re using MATLAB and Python in your instruction modules. What else characterizes the subjects you are teaching? What’s the future like? Are you thinking about changing the world yourself or having the next generation that you help do it for you?  

Byron: I'll start with your last question first. I found out early on that I enjoy being the one who helps those on the forefront of science and engineering. I like to view myself as the knowledge relay to help build my students' education so they can solve the world's problems. I find that my students are extremely motivated to solve the world's grand challenges (feel free to look them up!). Environmental engineering is on the front lines of solving these issues. As such, I try to incorporate modern solutions to these problems using software like MatLab and Python, as they will be critical tools for any data-based approach.  In terms of the future, I have hope that students will be motivated and equipped with the tools to solve the big issues, such as climate change, pollution, and exponential population growth.  

Arthur: I was aware of your strong philosophy about life and work when you were a student here. Have you struck a balance you can live with or are you still working on it?

Byron: In terms of work-life balance, I'm still working on it.  I tend to get so sucked into whatever aspect of teaching calls me to do. Honestly, my brain almost never stops thinking about how I can improve my teaching practices.  That is, unless I go climbing! It's essentially the only sport I've done that really lets my brain shut off and focus on the moment. As I'm continuing to progress in teaching and working as an academic, I am starting to learn to say "no" more often as I establish myself. I believe I will always have the inclination to overextend my time and energy but hope that I can reign it in, so I prevent any burnout.  As of now, I'm striking a good balance between the two that I am satisfied with.

Arthur: I’ll always remember our adventure on that traditional monstrosity, The Quest, in the Red River Gorge. I know that you studied hard and got your work done while you were here, but you had an outlet, an escape, as well. Can you say a few words about the impact of a hobby on your studies?  

Byron: I think having rock climbing in my life is (and was) the best thing for me. Going on adventures almost every weekend allowed me to disconnect and give my brain a break from the stresses of studying. Not only that, but I found an extreme passion for climbing that I'm still psyched on today! I find that I can carry that excitement over into my areas of work and share emotional energy with other outlets in life. When I get to climb and push myself in my sport, I find that I get equally motivated for work, my relationships, etc.  

Arthur: Since you are an instructor, and you have students of your own, what would be a good piece of advice for students as they move through undergrad?

Byron: What a good question to end with. There are so many things, but my top one is to strongly promote self-reflection. I cannot stress enough how important it is to stop occasionally and reflect on life. For me, frequently questioning what I wanted in life, how things were going, and thinking about how I wanted to progress as a human all contributed to my own growth and direction in life. For students, I ask them to reflect on how much they have learned at the end of a semester and how much they have grown as humans. College tends to be a transformative time for young adults, so having self-awareness is a big priority in my opinion.