The Enthusiast: Mitch Malachowski

Mitch Malachowski brings a happiness quotient to chemistry

Mitch Malachowski is already busy drawing molecules on the whiteboard as his undergraduate organic chemistry students trickle into their classroom, tucked in the basement of the Shiley Center for Science and Technology. By co-ed standards, this 9 a.m. session is early, and you can see it on their faces. Some look just plain tired. Others are discreetly pulling bits of muffin or croissant out of paper bags, munching on breakfast as they tune in to Malachowski’s lecture.

“Good morning everyone, how are you feeling today?” the professor’s voice calls from the front of the room. “What are we doing today? Where are we?”

The questions are designed to draw them in, forcing them to perk up and focus on the complex concept of substitution reactions. “I’m really lazy today,” he jokes. “So I’m going to let you devise and design the chapter.”

What follows is something of a treasure hunt, with Malachowski dropping hints and constantly prompting the class with words and ideas that push them forward. What comes next? Why? What kind of reaction can we expect and how will it look? Sometimes the room stays quiet, and he’s obliged to answer himself. But more often, several hands go up and theories ricochet around the room. None is ever cast aside. Malachowski addresses each one, assessing merits and drawbacks. “There’s a lot going on here, I realize,” he says reassuringly. “I’m just introducing the concepts. We’ll take it slowly.”

That gentle yet persistent style is what Mitch Malachowski is known for, and it’s why his organic chemistry classes are the most sought-after among science undergraduates on campus. In his 31st year at USD, Malachowski still comes to every lecture and lab full of excitement and enthusiasm. And his dedication to his students and their success — not only in his class, but also as happy citizens of the world — is legendary.

“I believe in a happiness quotient. I really believe that somehow we sap the energy from our students,” he says. “They’re so stressed and pressured and pushed. I want them to enjoy it. When I tell them, ‘This will be the most fun class you’ll ever have,’ they laugh.”

Beyond the fun factor, Malachowski makes it a point to be almost always available, either after hours at school, or via email. His door is open to any and all discussions, whether they involve chemistry or not. And his students get pulled into his lab research as colleagues, not just worker bees, receiving full credit on any paper that gets published with their help.

That model is what’s given Malachowski a name beyond the pristine USD campus and across the country. For decades, he’s championed and spread the idea of extending research opportunities to undergraduate students no matter what their field of study. “We’re very much in that mode in chemistry,” he says. “So for us, it’s very natural. But in other disciplines it’s not. I think my contribution is to show other academics why this model can be used in philosophy, or theology or history.”

Not surprisingly, Malachowski has won multiple awards for teaching, research and service at USD. And in the late fall of 2014, he became the university’s Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Professor of the Year for the state of California. Only one undergraduate professor per state can claim this prize, and Malachowski was up against teachers from powerhouse institutions like Berkeley, Stanford and Caltech. With typical humility, Malachowski was reluctant to take credit.

“On a personal level, it’s almost embarrassing,” he says with a chuckle. “To me, it speaks to this department and to what we value. A lot of people had a lot of input into what I do.”

In addition to his work in and out of the chemistry department, Malachowski is a competitive golfer whose goal is to compete in the U.S. Senior Open. He also takes guitar lessons. He says that helps him keep in tune with the challenges his students face. “One thing that faculty should consider doing is being a student,” he says. “See what it’s like. See how hard that really is.”

In addition to all his existing commitments, in 2014 Malachowski agreed to serve as interim chair of USD’s department of Theology and Religious Studies. Not because he’s an expert in the field, but because it’s a new experience, and he was asked to. It’s a move that fits perfectly with the can-do attitude he shares with his students every day.

“I want them to have a rich life full of wonderful experiences,” Malachowski says with a big smile. “I want my students to be passionate about what they do. To me, it’s all about passion. If they’re passionate, they’re going to be happy.” — Karen Gross