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Impact Beyond the Classroom

November 2013 | by Craig DeVrieze

Book this man lead billing on The Last Chemist Standing.

"Two sodium atoms are walking down the street," Art Serianz, PhD, began with the dry, halting delivery that has been a staple in St. Ambrose chemistry classrooms since 1975. "One of them says to the other, ‘Oh my gosh. I've lost my electron.' The first one says, ‘Are you sure?' And the other one says, ‘Yes. I'm positive.'"

The punch line might not immediately register with non-science types. ("When an atom loses its electron, it becomes positively charged," Serianz readily explained.) But, trust this SAU classroom icon: that old standard positively kills in Chemistry 101 and it has for nearly 40 years.

Because the years haven't remotely dulled his passion for science, his dedication to his students, nor his devotion to St. Ambrose, Serianz said he will be mixing a small dose of cornball humor with large dashes of basic and advanced chemistry concepts for at least a couple more years.

And that is great news for incoming SAU students. Serianz twice has been a nominee for Faculty Member of the Year, and he currently is serving his fifth multi-year term as chemistry department chair.

His approach to teaching demands attention to detail in an admittedly complex subject, but he also said, "I try to communicate to the students: ‘I'm on your side and, together, we are going to master this stuff.'"

Serianz seemingly was bound for a career in the sciences since he immigrated to the United States with his parents six years after he was born in post-war Germany in 1946. "He blew up many things in his parents' garage," shared his wife, Rachel Serianz, PhD, a longtime professor of education at SAU. "He does have a strong passion for science."

That passion, however, is one among many. This prof's personal chemistry includes a mix of roles as husband, father, chemist, educator, political party leader, fundraiser and avowed supporter of the liberal arts.

Serianz's imprint on St. Ambrose also goes far beyond the classroom. He has chaired or served on numerous SAU work groups, including a 10-year stint on the strategic planning committee. He currently is a member of both the institutional prioritization committee and the planning committee for the new Master of Physician Assistant Studies program. The first MPAS cohort, which is expected to start this coming summer, will continue an impressive expansion of the St. Ambrose health sciences curriculum. That is something Serianz is pleased to note has helped raise the profile of the undergraduate science programs.

True to his eclectic nature, however, he hopes such growth won't come at the expense of other departments or programs.

"I'm thinking about philosophy, English, music, art and theatre-those core liberal arts," he said. "I would love to see more humanities and liberal arts majors than there are."

Serianz routinely has helped put money where those sentiments lie, having served as a part-time grant writer for any number of university projects and programs virtually since his arrival in 1975.

Significant successes include a $1.5 million Title III technology grant in 1994, a $1 million Kresge grant to assist construction of the Rogalski Center and countless grants for smaller but no less vital sums in support of academic programs and student scholarships.

"You can't go many places on this campus without seeing something that his grant writing brought us," Rachel Serianz said. "I don't think a lot of people realize that."

Barry Ferm, PhD, chemical hygiene officer and laboratory coordinator at Lewis Hall, said that lack of recognition likely is a byproduct of Art Serianz's understated nature.

"He is so low key," Ferm said. "He kind of runs beneath the radar."

With a dry wit and wry comedic repertoire to match.

"A patient comes to see a psychiatrist," Serianz began again, wearing a mischievous grin. "He says, ‘I'm a teepee. I'm a wigwam. I'm a teepee. I'm a wigwam.' The psychiatrist says, ‘Relax. You're two tents.'"

He's here all week.

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