New graduate marries the majors of chemistry and keyboard performance

By

Mariela Lozano

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Although chemistry and playing the organ may not immediately seem to have significant overlap, they come together for graduating senior Paul Oftedahl as two of his passions in life and the two majors he has successfully pursued during his four years at Arizona State University.

Oftedahl embarked on this double-degree track to challenge what is conventionally considered possible to accomplish in an undergraduate education and because he was keen to make the most of his one college undergraduate experience. Though he comes from Tucson, Arizona, he chose ASU because of the opportunities available at a large institution and on account of the world-class faculty it attracts. Oftedahl is also a National Merit Scholarship awardee and was recently named the 2022 Distinguished Chemistry Award recipient.

Oftedahl’s passion for music manifested itself at an early age; he began piano lessons at age 5 and gradually added cello, organ, harpsichord and harp to his repertoire. His homeschool background has caused him to be a driven self-learner and allowed him to take advantage of diverse opportunities that would otherwise have been unavailable. His gifts in chemistry became apparent after developing a fascination for the periodic table around age 10 and subsequently excelling in numerous high school chemistry classes, including honors organic chemistry. In addition to his passions for music and chemistry, Oftedahl enjoys cooking, hiking, plane spotting and learning languages.

Oftedahl has found that the chemistry program at ASU is the perfect balance between small class sizes, allowing him to make connections with other students and the unparalleled opportunities that come from being part of a world-class research institution. Although many people assume that music is predominantly a right-brained discipline while chemistry is more left-brained, he says he finds that using a combination of right- and left-brain approaches to both chemistry and music allows him to excel in both sides of his college career. 

Oftedahl says he is grateful for the incredible opportunities he has had at ASU, including being able to travel to France to play historical organs, and is indebted to his family and many friends for their encouragement and support.

Question: What is your passion and how do you plan to live it up after graduation? 

Answer: Just as my initial attraction to chemistry came through the periodic table and the mesmerizing array of elements, so my passion for chemistry continues to be driven by my desire to understand how atoms interact at the molecular level. The idea that the quantum behavior of atomic particles is foundational to the familiar aspects of chemistry is a never-ending source of inspiration to me as I constantly seek to understand the way the world works at the most fundamental levels! On the music side, I enjoy performing and doing research on early music and plan to seek opportunities to perform even if my career is centered on chemistry. In the fall, I will be entering the chemistry PhD program at Iowa State to gain experience teaching and doing research in physical chemistry.

Paul Oftedahl and Professor Chad Borges at the 2022 SMS Award Reception.

Paul Oftedahl and Professor Chad Borges at the 2022 School of Molecular Sciences Award Reception.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I was not expecting to enjoy physical chemistry because it has a reputation for being very difficult. In the first physical chemistry class I took, I found I did not understand everything immediately as I had in previous classes and that I had to take risks going into exams, knowing I could still succeed even if I felt my grasp of the material wasn’t up to my personal standards.

Q: Which professor or mentor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I wish to credit two of my physical chemistry professors with opening my eyes to the wonder of physical chemistry and showing me how rewarding working in a lab can be. Dr. Andrew Chizmeshya is an incredible teacher whose passion for chemical thermodynamics and enthusiasm for teaching are indescribable and contagious. He and Dr. Anh Le (now at Georgia Tech) are the two key people that influenced my desire to pursue further study in physical chemistry.

Dr. Kimberly Marshall, my organ teacher for my four years at ASU, has helped me develop both as a musician and as a person. Her commitment to each of her students, positive outlook on life and vast expertise in music performance and literature have been instrumental (no pun intended) in shaping who I am today. The emphasis she places on separating a subjective evaluation from an objective analysis has helped form the paradigm for how I approach academic study. She also helped me realize how important it is to engage in activities separate from school in order to refresh and come back to school with new perspectives and ideas.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came in the context of learning languages — “prends un risque” (take a risk!), though I believe it applies to all areas of life. You will learn so much by doing things that are outside your comfort zone and will find that they become easier over time. If you’re considering (or already committed to) a double-degree track, especially in disparate fields, I would encourage you to formulate a plan, listing out all required classes and when they are offered, to ensure that you will be able to complete both degrees in your desired timeframe.

Written by Mariela Lozano, communications assistant, School of Molecular Sciences. Jenny Green contributed to this story.