By Adam Gonzales, College of Science
The College of Science is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by featuring some of the College’s outstanding faculty with Hispanic roots. First up is Dr. Vicente Talanquer, a University Distinguished Professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry department.
The College of Science spoke with Dr. Talanquer to learn more about his upbringing in Mexico City, his journey to the University of Arizona, his research interests in the study, reflection, and improvement of chemistry education, and what drives his passion as a scientist. Dr. Talanquer has been recognized with numerous awards during his tenure, including Arizona Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation in 2015 and the ACS Award for Achievement in Research for the Teaching & Learning of Chemistry in 2021. You can learn more about Dr. Talanquer’s work here.
Dr. Vicente Talanquer
University Distinguished Professor
Chemistry & Biochemistry
College of Science: Tell us a little about yourself, your background and your journey to the University of Arizona.
Talanquer: I was born in Mexico City in 1962. My parents are Spanish refugees from the Civil War in Spain 1936-1939. They had to flew Spain when they were kids and in 1942 the Mexican government offered asylum to Spanish refugees to settle in Mexico. My family had to rebuild their lives in Mexico. My parents could not go to college as they had to work to help sustain their families. I was thus what in the US are called “first generation” student and the first one in my family to graduate from college. I completed all my studies (bachelors, masters, and PhD in chemistry) at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City from 1989 through 1992. While doing my MS and PhD, I began working part time teaching physics and chemistry in a secondary school that a group of teachers interested in educational issues, including myself, founded (called “Instituto Escuela”). I also taught physics classes at the college level. In 1992, UNAM provided support for me to complete postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago. That was the first time I came to the US. I worked as a postdoc for three years, and in 1995 I returned to UNAM to work as an assistant professor at the Facultad de Química. I worked there until the year 2000 when I moved to my US. My husband is from the US and he had come to live with me in Mexico City in 1997. However, it was difficult for him to find a job as a social worker in Mexico City and we decided to explore the possibility of us moving to the US. I applied for a position at the University of Arizona and moved here in January of 2000.
CoS: When looking back on your childhood and spending time with family, are there any favorite traditions or memories that stick out to you?
Talanquer: Although I had many aunts, uncles, and cousins living in Spain, my close family in Mexico City was small. My grandfathers had died because of the war in Spain, and I did not get to meet them. I was very close to my grandmother on my mother’s side, who worked selling diverse products in a market stall in Mexico City. My mother helped her, so I spent considerable time with my grandmother at work and when she would take time off for vacation. Given that my mother had to stay taking care of the market stall, I would travel with my grandmother during her vacation. I remember those trips with great fondness. We would spend a week or so traveling together to a beach or to small towns around Mexico. My grandmother was an excellent cook and I remember the different “sweet” stuff that she prepared for us (flan, panqués).
CoS: Who are some of the people who have made the greatest impact on your life?
Talanquer: I spent my elementary and secondary school years in the same school, called Colegio Madrid in Mexico City. There I was lucky to have many excellent teachers who not only taught me to love learning, but also to love teaching. I owed to them the passion I have for educational matters. These teachers were not only committed to help their students learn, but also to prepare us to be critical thinkers who cared for well-being of others and our planet. I am certain that I would not be the person than I am today, and that I would not be where I am, without the influence of those teachers.
CoS: What was it that drew you to your area of research and expertise?
Talanquer: When I was a kid, I was very interested in all types of subjects but particularly in science. I had great chemistry teachers who encouraged me to pursue a college studies in that area. I went to UNAM to study chemistry but I found myself more interested in physics at the University. I opted for pursuing a specialization in physical chemistry which is the area in which I did my PhD and postdoctoral studies. However, I was also very interested in educational matters and cognitive psychology. Over time, I realized that my passion was centered on better understanding why many student struggle to understand and succeed in science courses. So, I switched my research to chemistry education. For the past twenty years my investigations have focused on exploring the conceptual difficulties that college students face to understand central scientific ideas. We use the results of these investigations to design and implement novel teaching strategies that better foster student understanding.
CoS: What is your favorite part of being a scientist?
Talanquer: There are many things I love about doing research. First, it excites me to learn about how things work and why things happen, it does not matter if it is about why a cloud forms, why water sticks to some materials and not others, or how students approach the solution to a problem. I can spend hours thinking about a problem I am interested in understanding and resolving. I also like that the products of hour work can benefit the lives of others through the creation of useful products or processes, or through the design of innovative learning experiences. I also enjoy having great freedom in my job to pursue the questions I am passionate about, and the fact that I get to work to help other people to fulfill their dreams through my teaching.