Tim Cook grew up in Moretown. His dad was The Valley’s family practitioner until 2016. His mom worked as a middle school math teacher. “Dr. Cook was always my dad. Now my students call me Dr. Cook,” said Cook.
After graduating from Harwood Union High School in 2001 and earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Boston University in 2005, Cook went on to earn his doctorate in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Now, he works as an associate professor of chemistry at University of Buffalo and has already racked up a number of awards.
In descending order, Cook’s chemistry awards include The 2020 SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest teaching award from New York State and the SUNY system; The 2019 National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award, the most prestigious award given by the NSF in support of early-career faculty, which comes with five years of funding to support research and educational initiatives; The 2019 LG Chem Global Innovation Challenge Award, which recognizes research in energy, sustainability and other areas that need innovative solutions and; finally, The 2018 UB Exceptional Scholar Award, which recognizes an unprecedented accomplishment in a senior scholar's career.
Cook’s chemistry career revolves around sustainability. At MIT, Cook was inspired by a professor who had devoted his life to using chemistry to find sustainable solutions. “It really resonated with me, this idea of how light interacts with molecules. How do you capture sunlight? How do you make fuels not from gasoline or fossil fuels that release CO2, but from fuels that are carbon neutral? That’s what I decided to pursue. I spent a good five years of my life thinking of that chemistry first and foremost,” said Cook.
In the lab that Cook runs now, he and his team of graduate students have been working to create new types of molecules. “We’re making molecules that absorb light in solar panels. We study how light interacts with molecules to try and capture sunlight. We’re making new molecules for batteries,” explained Cook.
Interestingly, Cook, an award-winning professor with a million-dollar research budget, never considered himself a particularly gifted student. “At Harwood, I wasn’t a bad student. I was just going through adolescence and having a tough time. I didn’t think I was particularly good at school,” he said.
Ultimately, his Harwood teachers encouraged him to pursue his academic passions through their own zest for teaching. “Mrs. Corey, my chemistry teacher at Harwood, had an incredible course,” said Cook, who noted that she made learning chemistry fun. “She would bring her ukulele to class and sing chemistry songs.”
However, chemistry wasn’t the only class Cook loved at Harwood. During his time there, Cook dove into another passion: art.
“My love of fountain pens started there,” said Cook, who fondly remembers how his art teacher, “Gar,” responded when Cook tripped and dropped a collection of pastels on the stairs outside the school during an outdoor art class. Gar is what students called now retired art teacher Carol Gargon.
“That year I won an art award. And when I got it, Gar presented me with a brand-new box of pastels. That was a really cool gesture on her part,” said Cook. “All of the art teachers at Harwood are so fantastic.”
Cook continues to make art to this day and now, his chemistry-centric art is featured on many different platforms: campus murals, laboratory websites, chemistry textbooks, chemistry journals and more.
He draws out the chemical structures of molecules, the hexagonal forms of benzenes, short lines signaling bonds, atomic orbitals and more science-invoking material. Once, he drew a stylized picture of the periodic table, which now stands as an elephant-sized mural in the UB Natural Sciences building.
For Cook, art and science are two sides of the same coin. “There are parallels between my interests,” he noted. “There’s an art to science. In my lab, we design complex architectures of molecules that come together in symmetric ways. We create these fascinating geometric shapes. I’ve been able to draw on my artistic side to enhance that. Doing art has helped me be a more effective scientist,” said Cook.
Balancing his love for science and art was never a question … until his baby twins were born. Now, Tim and his wife Sarah Cook, a pharmaceutical researcher at Enhanced Pharmacodynamics and an adjunct faculty member at UB, have been saddled with a challenge greater than academic life could have prepared them for: raising three kids, two twins and one 3- year-old.
“I don’t even know how to handle having twins,” said Cook. When asked how he balances work, art and family life, Cook said, “I basically wake up and try to get done what needs to be done.”
While having three young children means Cook no longer has time to sit for hours and do intricate fountain pen sketches, he still finds time to satisfy his art craving by simply sketching on his tablet after the kids have fallen asleep.
“There’s a calming aspect to sitting and drawing,” said Cook. “I don’t write in a diary, but the art is the proxy for that. It’s a way to express myself.”
If Cook has learned anything from about the art of balancing passion, family time and a rigorous work schedule, it’s that there is no one perfect way to do it.
“A lot of undergrads feel like everything they do has to move towards one goal. But really, there’s no one way to approach your goal. You have to trust yourself,” said Cook.
In his own teaching, Cook tries to foster the nurturing attitude he hopes his students will adopt for themselves, even when studying a subject as grueling as chemistry.
“It’s tough when you hear about people who are bright and struggling with chemistry. There’s this weird gatekeeping in the sciences. They want you to think that chemistry is so hard, so confusing,” said Cook.
“I want my students to realize that these processes are fundamental and accessible. Learning them is a slow process, but any progress should be satisfying. Nobody gets it super quickly. There are still things I’m learning about chemistry today,” said Cook. “My charge is not to trick students or weed students out of my class.”
Cook’s supportive teaching philosophy has already paid off, as seen in the occasional gratitude-laden email Cook gets from a former student. “Students will email me saying, I got into med school, thank you so much or your class helped me so much,” said Cook.
Growing up in The Valley with supportive teachers is ultimately what made Cook cultivate his own supportive teaching philosophy. “There’s something really special about the way we were taught in Moretown,” said Cook. “I was privileged to grow up in this amazing Valley. It was a such a nurturing place.”