By Bryan Donoghue
For many students at Humboldt State University, any chemistry class is on a list of the hardest courses a student can take. Humboldt State has taken on a new temporary chemistry professor whom students are dubbing “passionate,” “exuberant,” “enthusiastic,” and “caring.” Walking into his office, some may mistake him for a student. He’s listening to Selena Gomez, One Direction and country music. But it’s his demeanor, not his music preference, that makes Puminan Punthasee so approachable.
“I’m not afraid to approach Pete, which I sometimes am with other professors,” said Kathryn Buzanski, 29-year-old student and Marine Corps veteran. “With Pete, I can email him, I can approach him, talk to him face-to-face, and have no worries.”
Punthasee’s approachability follows into his relationships with colleagues in the chemistry department. Joshua R. Smith, chair of the Department of Chemistry, recalls that the first time he met Punthasee. He found him to be funny and deeply empathetic. But it was his passion for teaching that struck Smith the most in the hiring process.
“He clearly had a passion for teaching, based on what he wrote in his application, and he clearly got that across during the interview as well,” Smith said.
This enthusiasm and commitment Punthasee brings to teaching chemistry blossomed long before Humboldt State. Dating back to his high school years in Thailand, Punthasee had to take science courses every semester in high school. Thailand’s education system requires six science courses in order to graduate.
“I wasn’t really a smart kid, I was slow, and couldn’t grab anything that the teacher taught us,” Punthasee said. “My grades were okay but weren’t as high as I wanted them to be.”
Before graduating high school, Punthasee discovered his passion for learning, as he found a role model at his tutoring school.
“This chemistry teacher at my tutoring school made chemistry understandable,” Punthasee said. “And that was the starting point that made me realize that if I could understand chemistry, maybe there’s some other stuff that I can understand as well.”
Following high school, Punthasee graduated from the University of Thailand, and continued to expand his horizons by enrolling in University of Missouri’s Ph.D. program for chemistry.
“I was in a Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri, and I hated the program,” Punthasee said. “It’s the nature of the Ph.D. program that makes you do a bunch of research, but I don’t like doing the research, so I found myself looking at the clock every five minutes.”
Although he isn’t passionate about research, Punthasee found his calling as a teacher. He’s won three awards for being a teaching assistant through his graduate program. He’s been awarded with the Number One T.A. Choice award twice, and has also accepted the Green Chalk award for being an excellent teaching assistant.
“I bet you that no science teacher does things like I do, not in this state,” Punthasee said. “Only two people follow my “Pete” style. Me, and my role model in Thailand.”
His efforts to reach out to students outside of the classroom further solidifies their appreciation for Punthasee as well. As a professor, he will send three emails each day on average, all for varying, but positive reasons.
“Pete really likes to send out encouraging emails,” said chemistry student Kate Panebianco.
Brooke Holdren, a 20-year-old science and art major at Humboldt State, also expressed how much the emails help her.
“I’ve gotten both general and personal encouragement emails. He’s really taking the time out to say specifically, ‘You’ve done this really well today’,” Holdren said.
“He sends the most emails out of any teacher I’ve ever had. It’s really great and encouraging, sometimes a bit over the top, but that just shows how involved he is in comparison to the other teachers I’ve had.”
What makes Punthasee such a well-liked professor boils down to how relatable he is. He’s just like any regular college student, and he likes to keep things simple because simplicity is easier to understand.
“It’s just human nature,” he said. “We don’t like complicated stuff, we like fun stuff.”
Attributing his best quality to being a “tremendously freaking hard worker,” Punthasee said his talent lies in his ability to simplify and socialize.
Buzanski explained this in a way that many of Punthasee’s students can empathize with. “He does want to be our friend, but more importantly, he wants to be our friend while we know he’s our teacher,” she said.