• Olga Michels, Associate Professor of Chemistry

    "I love doing research with undergraduates and extending my teaching from the classroom to the lab.”

Olga Michels

Feeling at Home in the Liberal Arts

Michels has always felt like teaching was her passion. “I went to graduate school to study chemistry because I really enjoyed science and wanted training beyond a bachelor’s degree,” she says. “I originally planned to get a master’s degree and then teach at an elite private high school.” But during her graduate program, she fell in love with research and the city where she was living, so she decided to stay and finish a PhD.

From there Michels was determined to teach at a college or university but hadn’t strongly considered the liberal arts. “As luck had it, my initial appointment was as a sabbatical replacement at Luther College,” she says. “When I learned I could teach at a college level, and that teaching was valued as much as research, I knew I’d found my home. I love doing research with undergraduates and extending my teaching from the classroom to the lab.”

Teaching Outside the Chemistry Box

What Michels values most about her job is the opportunity to truly know many of her students. “The faculty-student interactions at Luther are wonderful and available to any student willing to engage with a faculty member,” she says. “I teach some relatively large classes but still get to know many of my students on a personal level, especially my research students.”

The second aspect she values most is the opportunity to use her talents to develop and direct courses for the college. “I’ve been very blessed to lead Luther’s Malta semester program and teach Paideia 450 in Cambodia,” she says. “Being given the chance to teach ‘outside my chemistry box’ gives me time to recharge while teaching/engaging with Luther students in a very different manner than my chemistry classes. Many of my travel and life experiences have allowed me to effectively guide programs elsewhere in the world, and being given these occasional opportunities is a huge benefit to my position.”

Her Research on the Behavior of Molecules

Michels’s current research involves looking at environmental pollutant molecules that fluoresce (absorb and emit light). Her broader area of research involves looking at a target molecule (i.e., pollutants) and observing how its behavior with light varies when the molecule interacts with a larger “host” molecule.

“In essence we are ‘caging’ the pollutant and seeing how its interaction with light varies,” she says. “We determine the extent of the interaction—some of the pollutants interact more with some of the cages and some interact less. ”

Michels and her students are trying to learn whether they can detect these pollutants at lower levels than other methods by caging them and observing their fluorescence. If the molecules interact well with the cages, there are methods being developed by which these cages may be able to remove that pollutant from the water, which would be a great service to the environment.

Her Study-Abroad Courses in Malta and Cambodia

Michels directed Luther’s Malta program a few years ago and feels she had the experience of a lifetime while traveling with 13 amazing Luther students to the tiny island nation in the Mediterranean. “We worked with refugees from North Africa; studied Malta’s history, culture, and people; learned about Islam by traveling to Morocco and Turkey to observe some of their traditions; and discussed contemporary ethical issues of the region.” She highly recommends the Malta program to every Luther student.

Michels also developed the Paideia 450: War, Peace, and Reconciliation in Cambodia course with a colleague. “This was another life-altering course and experience,” she says. “Cambodia survived a brutal civil war in the late 1970s and is still rebuilding the country postwar.” Traveling to Asia, visiting one of the poorest countries in the world, seeing the hope in the faces of many, and helping with service projects was fascinating for her and her students. Michels says, “Cambodia also boasts one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, Angkor Wat, and spending time exploring the ancient temples was an eye-opening experience.”

Roles at Luther and Industry Affiliations:

  • Pre-pharmacy advisor
  • Vice-chair of the HPE, Math, and Science divisions
  • Member of the International Studies Board
  • Member of American Chemical Association
  • Member of American Photochemical Society
  • Member of Midwest Association of Chemistry Teachers at Liberal Arts Colleges

My current hobby is keeping up with my beautiful eight-and-a-half-month-old baby girl. Outside of that, I enjoy playing tennis and musical theatre. Over the past decade, I’ve been heavily involved with the local community theatre, both on and off the stage. I’ve directed three musicals and have performed in many shows.

—Olga Michels