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In his element: Butler chemistry professor lands honor

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For this year’s general chemistry students at Butler University, the message on the first day of class was the same as always.

Professor Robert Pribush polled his students, asking how many were involved in extracurricular activities in high school. He asked about sports, dance, performing and other activities. He wanted to know how many hours they spent during the week practicing — two, three, four hours.

Then he asked if they plan on going into sports or performance professionally. When the students laugh, Pribush got serious. He hammered home the idea that if they spend that kind of extra time on extracurricular activities, they have to spend more in order to succeed as doctors, pharmacists and scientists.

“Welcome to varsity chemistry,” he tells them.

Pribush, a Center Grove area resident, has dedicated his life preparing the next generation of scientists through a mix of hands-on instruction, mentoring and motivation. When he’s not in the labs at Butler, he’s spearheading Indiana’s state science fair or organizing a local wing of the Chemistry Olympiad. These activities feed his passion for learning.

For his work, Pribush was recently honored by the American Chemical Society with a prestigious volunteer award, as well as being named a fellow in the state organization.

“His fellow members say that Robert’s level of volunteer activity is absolutely unparalleled and that he is, without question, the most dedicated participant in the creation of ACS exams in the past 20 years — and perhaps ever,” said Joan Coyle, spokeswoman for the American Chemical Society.

Growing up in Elizabeth, N.J., Pribush witnessed scientific advancement in his back yard. He could see the Esso petroleum refinery from his back window, flames shooting from exhaust pipes and the blow of lights.

An uncle worked in chemistry and urged Pribush to consider it as a career. From his first chemistry course in high school, he was drawn into the rational nature of science.


Robert Pribush

Home: Center Grove area

Occupation: Chemistry professor at Butler University

Family: Wife, Bonnie

Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Delaware; doctorate in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; post-doctorate work at the University of Southern California.

Associations: Member of the American Chemical Society for 43 years, serving in roles such as councilor for the Indiana section, program chairman of the Central Regional Meeting, Indiana Section organizer for the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad, and involvement in the Chemical Education Examinations Institute.

Honors: Recipient of the Volunteer Service Award for 2014; named a Fellow in the American Chemical Society for his accomplishments in scientific research and education.

“Chemistry is logical. You’re solving puzzles,” he said.

While studying at the University of Delaware, he was influenced by two of his chemistry professors to think about teaching chemistry to others. The more he thought about it, the more Pribush gelled with the idea of teaching at the college level.

He finished his bachelor’s degree from Delaware, then earned his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He completed post-doctoral work at the University of Southern California.

It was during his work in California that he received a phone call from Butler University that would shift his career trajectory.

“I’d never heard of Butler, honestly, but they wanted to bring me in for an interview,” Pribush said. “I rushed to the library and looked it up, just to know what I was heading in to.”

During the interview, though, it didn’t take long for Pribush to feel at home.

“It was the first place where we went out to dinner, and students were with us. That said to me that Butler was very serious about personally interacting with the student, and that’s what I was looking for,” he said.

Pribush has worked in Butler’s science department for the past 40 years.

Though he mostly handles general chemistry courses, he also leads inorganic chemistry and other advanced level classes.

But more than simply establishing the building blocks of chemistry for his students, he tries to create a foundation that they can take into their post-graduate careers.

“I’m also a mentor. I try to teach them better study habits, to understand what they need to do, to get ready for their profession. I’m going to be hard on them because some day they’ll be my doctor, my pharmacist, and I need for them to be good,” Pribush said.

That’s not just a motivational ploy. His personal physician is a former student, and the anesthesiologist during a recent hospital trip had taken his general chemistry class.

He regularly meets with former students who have gone on to other careers. Even though they may have left the chemistry field, they still consider Pribush a mentor.

“The most special thing is, he is motivated by both a love of his discipline and a love of the students he works with. Those are the two threads that tie this together,” said Bonnie Pribush, his wife and director of leadership at Franklin College. “He’s really fascinated by chemistry, but he also really cares about these individuals that he’s teaching.”

But while his work teaching is the centerpiece of his career, Pribush has found other ways to give back to the science community. Much of that has been through the American Chemical Society.

Pribush has been involved with the society for nearly 45 years. As a college student, he saw the value of joining the professional organization and returning some of the benefit that he’s taken from science.

“Chemistry has been very good to me. It took me out of a blue-collar environment and gave me a very satisfying career,” he said. “What I do with the (American Chemical Society) is saying thank you for the opportunity this career has afforded me.”

Pribush has been involved with all levels of advocacy within the society. He helped formed a subcommittee aimed at young chemists, giving them a voice in the national science community.

In subsequent years, he became a leader within the society’s activities in Indiana. He served on committees dealing with finding people to serve as officers, setting up national meetings and getting new members involved.

One of his natural positions was on the society’s division of chemical education examination, creating chemistry exams that are nationally standardized.

All exams are created by volunteer educators, and Pribush has shown incredible versatility in this task, Coyne said.

“He devised an exit exam for undergraduate chemistry that is changing the way chemistry departments nationally assess student learning over the full four-year curriculum,” she said.

But his desire to advance chemistry spreads beyond his official duties in the American Chemical Society. He has served as director of the Indiana Science Fair, which in recent years has had projects based on improved photosynthetic solar cells and invasive species.

Working with noted chemist Jianping Huang of Eli Lilly Co., Pribush helped strengthen Indiana’s involvement in the Chemistry Olympiad, an international competition pitting the best young minds in chemistry again one another.

One of their Indiana students won a gold medal at the competition in Moscow.

“It’s like coming out and being No. 1 out of 10,000 people. It’s a pretty big deal,” he said. “To operate at this international level, there’s a huge amount of dedication involved on this level as students. It’s like our national sports Olympics.”

Pribush also has been working with the textbook company Pearson to bring an online graded homework system into his classroom. The program easily allowed him to track each students’ homework, tests and other assignments.

“I’ve realized the power of technology and how it can enhance what goes on in the classroom,” he said.

Impressed with the feedback that he provided, the company asked Pribush to help develop a digital course for remedial chemistry students.

“This will analyze individual students’ needs,” he said. “We want to take students with background deficiencies and help them succeed in college.”

For Pribush, being presented the Volunteer Service Award and named a fellow by the American Chemical Society has been incredibly rewarding. But his greatest accomplishment will still be influencing and molding his students, and keeping the legacy of great scientists alive.

“Teaching is a way for me to help young people find their way,” he said.

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