It’s not every day that you see acid-base equilibria and ester hydrolysis being discussed on primetime television. But on Sunday night, during the finale of “Undercover Boss” on CBS, viewers were treated to a small dose of college o-chem.
Timothy P. White, the chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, went undercover—trimming his hair and donning glasses, dental inserts, a fake mustache, and even an earring—to assess the situation at his school. He visited with and observed a number of university workers on the job, including a track-and-field coach and an organic chemistry professor, to see how recent decisions to cut salaries and budgets (a consequence of California’s troubled finances) have affected the student experience.
The premise of “Undercover Boss,” according to the show’s intro, is that the economy is in bad shape, and “in these tough times, some bosses are taking radical steps to discover how to improve their companies.” I’d never watched the show before, but after a colleague sent me a note about this particular episode, I made sure to check it out.
Catharine Larsen, the lucky organic chemistry professor who had her class scrutinized by the chancellor, tells me that she got involved with the show when the chancellor’s office called. She was asked whether a film crew shooting a television pilot about jobs on college campuses could take some footage of her lecture. “The benefits, should UC Riverside become a regular site for filming, outweighed my apprehension of perhaps not being taken seriously as a chemist for participating in reality TV,” says Larsen, an assistant professor who joined the university faculty in 2008.
White posed as “Pete Weston,” a bumbling assistant in Larsen’s 250-student lecture. He helped (if you could call it that) Larsen by reading some sample quiz questions and drawing some reaction mechanisms on the overhead projection system.
After the lecture, Larsen says she mentioned to her students that “ ‘Pete’ bore a striking resemblance” to the chancellor” but didn’t question the television pilot premise at the time. When it was revealed at the end of the show that Weston was really the chancellor, Larsen says she realized that what threw her off was the set of fake teeth.
In the end, White was impressed with Larsen’s lecture and said he found it gratifying to see the classroom technology, which was a big investment for the school, in action. Specifically, he thought that the clickers the students use to answer multiple-choice questions really help to focus the students. For instance, Larsen says, when a majority of the students select the wrong answer, “I don’t tell them the answer.” But their error “directs me to which underpinning concepts require reexplanation.”
At the conclusion of the episode, White rewards Larsen for her help by naming a scholarship after her. “Seeing as I could not talk them into naming the scholarship after someone more senior and deserving, the only thing left is to embrace this surreal turn of events,” Larsen says. The Catharine Larsen Science Award, intended to encourage young women to engage in undergraduate research in the sciences, will go to a lucky young lady once the funds are raised. To contribute, click here.