Dr. Linda Allen: Celebrating 35 Years of Teaching Excellence


 LSU Chemistry | April 30, 2021

 

Dr. Linda AllenBATON ROUGE, LA- The daughter of an engineer working in petroleum production, a young Linda Swisher (Allen) often moved with her family across the Southwest. Allen lived in Odessa, Texas; Hobbs, New Mexico; Richmond, Texas; Port Neches, Texas; and Beaver, Oklahoma. Although her family relocated every four years, Allen's love for science remained close to her heart. 

Allen always gravitated to science throughout her schooling. It was the opportunity to schedule special topics classes in high school that shaped her initial interest in becoming a pharmacist.  

"In high school, I liked science but hated chemistry," Allen said. "I took parasitology and genetics…I really enjoyed biology. So, I thought of pharmacy as a career because it's science, and you can help people."

After graduating from high school in 1977, Allen enrolled at Southwestern Oklahoma State University as a pre-pharmacy major. However, after a summer internship, Allen soon learned a career as a pharmacist was not a suitable fit. 

During an undergraduate chemistry course taught by Dr. Dan Dill, Allen grew excited over her newfound interest and understanding of chemistry. 

"I started understanding chemistry rather than just memorizing it. I finally got it!"

Allen began working as a student worker for a chemistry class that taught photography and film development. She was tasked with preparing all the solutions for the course and serving as a lab assistant. Allen described the experience as her first introduction to college teaching. 

After her junior year, with the help of Dill, Allen participated in a summer research experience at the University of Arkansas. It was this experience that planted the seed of pursuing graduate school.   

During her senior year, Allen applied to various graduate programs and jobs. She was offered a position to work as a chemist at Dow, but "I had in the back of my head I wanted to teach."  

Allen comes from a family of educators: Allen's grandmother, mother, and sister. "I always saw myself more of a teacher than a professor," Allen said. She declined the position with Dow and left for graduate school to pursue her interest in teaching college chemistry. 

Allen enrolled in the chemistry doctoral program at the University of Arkansas and joined Professor Bill Durham's research group. Allen was Durham's first graduate student and PhD graduate. 

Dr. Allen and Ray in graduate schoolDr. Linda Allen and her husband, Dr. Ray Allen, in graduate school (1985).

During her graduate studies, Allen married fellow biochemistry doctoral student Ray Allen. Both trying to complete their dissertations, Allen and her husband purchased a $300 printer (contact printing) and special software for special characters to use with their shared Commodore 64 computer. 

Two doctoral students sharing one computer required the cultivation of patience and collaboration. Allen recalls arranging computer usage time around her husband a challenge but helped her know and understand herself and her spouse better. 

"Years married as graduate students should count double," Allen laughed. 

Allen successfully defended her dissertation titled, "Reactions of the Trans Isomers of Ruthenium II Complexes Containing 2,2’-Bipyridine," in August 1985. Allen's husband had successfully defended his dissertation less than 24 hours earlier. 

Louisiana Bound

Allen's husband received a postdoctoral researcher position at the LSUHSC School of Medicine – Biochemistry Department in New Orleans. To relocate with her husband, Allen contacted Sister Mary Carl Malmstrom at Xavier University of Louisiana, inquiring about a vacant teaching position.  

After a phone interview, Allen was soon invited for an on-site interview.  Not familiar with the city and lost on Carrollton Ave., Allen followed a car with a Xavier bumper sticker. Upon luckily arriving at campus, Allen noticed it was the first day of classes.  

"They were needing someone to teach general chemistry labs and drills… Sister Joanne Bauer handed me the course syllabus and I noticed my name was already on it," Allen said. 

Allen worked at Xavier for 10 years and attained tenure. She taught various lecture and lab courses. Allen took over the General Chemistry teaching lab and rewrote the course with new experiments and lab manuals, which are mostly still used today. She also developed new Advanced Inorganic Chemistry lectures and labs and even taught some Quantitative Analysis lectures and labs. 

Former Xavier student and mentee Dr. Claude Davis (LSU PhD 2001) recalls Allen’s sheer passion for helping students learn and enjoy chemistry. "She was a teacher first and always wanted to see students succeed. She was meant to teach chemistry. She is a natural fit," Davis said. “She attracted and captivated students to chemistry because of the energy she brought to the classroom… She was always looking to make chemistry fun." 

Allen's husband started working at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, one of the first research groups to work at PBRC, and was commuting back and forth to Baton Rouge. In 1995, Allen now a mother of two, was balancing a career and family but began seeking opportunities to also work in Baton Rouge. 

On a graduate student recruitment visit at Xavier, LSU Chemistry Professor Steve Watkins mentioned the need for someone to oversee their General Chemistry labs and teach at LSU. After a successful interview and job offer, Allen relinquished her tenured position at Xavier to become the Director of Undergraduate Laboratories for the LSU Department of Chemistry. 

LSU Career 

From 1995 to 2008, Allen taught General Chemistry in the classroom (Chem1201 and Chem1202), which earned her the 1999 Outstanding Freshman Teacher Award, 2002 Tiger Athletic Foundation College Excellence in Teaching Award, and the 2004 LSU BP Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching.  

Since her arrival at LSU, Allen serves as the instructor of record for about 20 sections of the General Chemistry Laboratory Course (Chem1212) each semester.  "From the time I arrived, there was always an unmet demand for the lab courses. We needed more space, more TAs, and more resources," Allen said. 

To meet the increased enrollment demands and to incorporate more digital resources, Allen implemented a significant transformation of Chem1212. In 2016, the course was redesigned from a 3-hour lab to a 2-hour lab that meets twice a week, which allowed for the introduction of more additional sections at 2 new times. 

Dr. Allen receiving teaching award

Dr. Linda Allen receiving the  2018 Tiger Athletic Foundation Outstanding Instructor Award.

Allen crafted quality laboratory experiments that could be completed within 1.5 hours. She also developed a new hybrid lab manual and notebook combination titled "Connecting Classroom to Benchtop."  A new e-book was also designed with additional digital content providing online quizzes, course content, videos, and other supplemental information. The modernized delivery of content for Chem1212 saves time in the laboratory and lowers lab manual costs for students.  In 2018, Allen won the Tiger Athletic Foundation Outstanding Instructor award.

Many of Allen's experiment designs are utilized in chemistry teaching laboratories across the country. Currently, 21 of her experiments are in the Hayden-McNeil/Macmillian publisher repository for custom lab manual development. Across the US, 11 colleges are currently using at least one of her designed experiments. Last year, 14 published manuals included experiments developed by Allen. 

Allen also works closely with her team of instructors and teaching assistants, providing training sessions, monitoring adherence to safety protocols, grading, and mentorship. Teaching research-based instructional strategies and course management with her team, Allen reinforces classroom/laboratory experiences that are most effective and safe for student learning.

"One of the things Linda does an excellent job of is being a very wise sounding board.  With students, there is an infinite number of gray area cases and judgment calls that we have to make,” said Senior Instructor Caroline Schneider.  “She does a good job of mixing fairness and compassion in these cases, and has taught me where “the line” is, not something you learn in the PhD process."

On any typical day, it’s not unusual to see a line of eager students waiting outside of Allen’s office on the first floor of Choppin Hall.  Her office is a hub that fosters student success and community. "At LSU, She [Allen] continued to gift students with that smaller college feeling that I had experienced at Xavier. Students would wait in the hall to have the opportunity to talk with Dr. Allen," said Davis. 

“Another key element is her openness to being there, and incredibly patient.  So many people would get annoyed at the amount of interruptions she gets during the day, but that did not stop her from meeting with students,” Schneider said.  

For the past 25 years at LSU, Allen has taught over 26,000 students. Through her purposeful engagement, enthusiasm for teaching, and skilled advising, Allen has helped countless students on their journey to learning chemistry and achieving a college degree. 

On May 14, 2021, Allen will be retiring from LSU. The retirement countdown on her phone doesn’t serve as a somber reminder but rather a celebration for 35 years of teaching excellence. Her contributions to instructional content and course development will continue promoting the importance of chemistry education at LSU and across the country. 

"It's been a very satisfying career, especially when students say they 'got it' [learned chemistry]."

 

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Media Contact:
Gretchen Schneider 
LSU Chemistry
gschne2@lsu.edu