Blackboard-and-chalk may seem extremely old school by today’s collegiate standards, but for UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry Anastassia Alexandrova, it’s still an incredibly effective teaching tool. Alexandrova, winner of the 2023 Gold Shield Faculty Prize — which recognizes outstanding scholarship, teaching and university service by an exceptional mid-career full professor — uses the method even when she’s imparting the most difficult concepts to her students.
“I myself was taught in this way,” said Alexandrova, who was born and raised in Soviet-era Saratov, Russia. “Back in 20th-century Russia, we did not have anything sophisticated — certainly no computers, smartboards and clickers, and sometimes no heating in the middle of winter. But we had extraordinary, deep and charismatic instructors who taught their very tough classes in ways that were absolutely intellectually addicting. I guess I took their example to heart.”
Judging by the overwhelmingly positive comments about Alexandrova in students’ instructor evaluation forms, it’s obvious the method works. Said one student in her Chemistry 20AH class: “Professor Alexandrova has no flaws in her teaching or course. She is excellent at bringing us through the math to the concepts that we truly need to grasp, and her course is designed to let us grapple with concepts.”
As the latest winner of the prize, which is sponsored by Gold Shield, Alumnae of UCLA, one of UCLA’s oldest support groups, Alexandrova will receive $30,000 to use as she wishes in teaching, research or university service.
Her own work in theoretical chemistry, lauded by colleagues at UCLA and universities worldwide, focuses on applied problems, explaining the properties of molecules and materials, and designing new functional materials. Last year, she was tapped to lead the National Science Foundation–funded Center for Advanced Molecular Architectures for Quantum Information Science at UCLA, which focuses on the creation of molecules that act as qubits, the basic units of information in quantum computing. She does most of her work on a computer — and occasionally, of course, on paper — before conducting experiments, allowing for the explanation of interesting experimental outcomes.
Alexandrova’s UCLA research group currently consists of eight graduate students, three postdoctoral researchers and four undergraduate student researchers, with several new scholars waiting eagerly to join.
In his letter nominating Alexandrova for the prize, Neil Garg, professor and chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department, extolled her extensive service to UCLA as a graduate advisor, former vice chair of undergraduate education, a creator of new programs and courses, an organizer of undergraduate events, a mentor to new faculty instructors, a recruiter of world-class colleagues to UCLA and senior editor of the Journal of Physical Chemistry, one of the top peer-reviewed journals in physical chemistry.
The daughter of engineers, Alexandrova knew from age 13 that chemistry was in her future. “In the Russian school system, chemistry is taught for a solid four years,” she said. “I understood quite quickly that I wanted to know everything about this subject. I was completely intoxicated by it and was learning it with a passion, which persists to this day.”
Alexandrova received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Saratov State University in 2000 and completed her predoctoral work at the Vernadskii Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in 2001. She immigrated to the United States soon afterward, completing her doctorate in physical chemistry at Utah State University in 2005 and postdoctoral work at Yale University in 2010.
When Alexandrova interviewed at UCLA in 2010, she immediately fell in love with the school. “The department of chemistry and biochemistry has incredibly high-caliber science and, at the same time, a collegial atmosphere. I would say the ego of UCLA is small, but the impact is high,” she said. “I wanted to be part of it from the first visit.”
Alexandrova’s partner, Philippe Sautet, is also on faculty at UCLA, in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering. The couple are raising two daughters, Sophia, 14, and Amelie, 5. It’s an incredibly busy life and one Alexandrova said she’d never trade.
“I love doing science with my students and postdocs. There is nothing more exciting than working through a new and challenging scientific problem, building on each other’s thoughts, dreaming up crazy ideas ― some of which are actually good,” she said. “Young students are the best dreamers. We are having an adventure.”