Introducing Robert Levis
The Chemistry of Wine is a general education course offered in the fall in the School of Science and Technology. In the class taught by Professor Robert Levis, students learn about the science, as well as the art, of winemaking.
Robert Levis, a winemaker himself, is also involved with other aspects of chemistry. He directs a center for strong field research, which involves the study of super-intense laser molecules interaction.
The Temple News talked with Levis about the class, what it entails and what students should expect, as well as how he got involved in the field of chemistry, in honor of our annual Bar Guide insert.
TTN: Why did you decide to get into the field of chemistry?
RL: I can tell you almost to the day when it was. I was a pre-med major at La Salle University, and the first month of the second semester, I was memorizing all these biology terms, and…it just had the answer for everything. You could explain the entire phenomenon that you come into contact with just in a daily existence. I always liked to explain things and right there I switched from pre-med into chemistry, and then chemistry to grad school, and then grad school into teaching and research.
The Temple News: Why did you decide to teach the Chemistry of Wine?
Robert Levis: Ultimately it came down to that the associate dean, George Palladino knew that another faculty member and I made wine every year and they were looking for new gen-ed courses. They said, “why don’t you teach something on wine?” So they spent the summer designing what we wanted the course to be and kind of developed it over the course of two years and then the third year it was really nice.
TTN: Do the students get to make their own wine? Do they get to keep it?
RL: No, what the students do in the experiment is learn about fermentation and how temperature affects fermentation. So if you open a jelly jar and you just leave it on the counter, after about two weeks it’s going to taste bubbly, because it’s fermenting. But if you open it and leave it in the refrigerator and you can leave it in there for a month and basically nothing will happen and that’s because the higher the temperature, the faster this process of fermentation occurs.
What the students will do will take grape juice and put it in three bottles with a balloon on top and yeast in the bottle and put one in the refrigerator, just one in the standard temperature room of the house, like the living room, and one in the hottest spot of the house, which is usually the attic, and they find that at the higher temperature, the fermentation goes really fast and the balloon expands in like two days. In room temperature it takes about a week, and in the refrigerator it never ferments. That is to the extent of the wine that they make, and it’s not really wine, they can’t drink it.
TTN: How would you rate the difficulty of this class?
RL: It’s easier than they think it’s going to be. After the first two weeks into the class, everybody gets desperate because they start learning some chemistry. They’re typically scared stiff about science, but we make it so that almost everybody passes the courses, and they learn some science, too. We’ve actually gotten [students] to switch from whatever [major they were in], art [or] history, into science, which is just great. Though, that’s not the idea. We’re not trolling for new majors, the idea is to teach these students that scientists have a different way of looking at the world, that when we say something, we mean something different than when a politician says something or someone in humanities. There’s always room for argument there, and while there is room for argument in science it plays out in the laboratory, not in the opinion polls.
TTN: Do students just learn how to make wine, or do they learn about any other substances like drugs?
RL: Nah, we were thinking about running a course on the science of sex, but we could also do something in the chemistry of narcotics. They do in a way. They learn how drugs work in a human, or any organism, by binding into active sites in proteins. We actually go over three-dimensional crystals structures in proteins, because that’s the way students learn about how taste, smell and perception of flavor come about, so it’s essential. So they could jump from there to how drugs interact with the body at that point, since we don’t specifically cover that.
Matthew Hulmes can be reached at email@example.com.