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Chemist draws inspiration from the very basics

By Allana Akhtar, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 18, 2014

To explain why she loves her field, Chemistry Prof. Anne McNeil, who is also an assistant professor of macromolecular science and engineering, pulls up a picture of a kitten calmly sitting on top of a 4000-degree flame, protected only by an inch-thick surface over the torch. The kitten survives because the surface, RTV 615, has properties that allow it to absorb high levels of heat without transferring it.

Many people, after finding out only the basic facts of why the kitten is safe, are satisfied enough by the answer to move on with their lives. But such an answer was not enough for McNeil. She wanted to know the reasoning behind what exactly gave the surface such properties, down to the last atom. This constant urge to ask “Why?” may be one of the qualities that factored into McNeil’s selection as one of this year’s recipients of the Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, which recognizes faculty for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education.

McNeil has taught at the University since 2007. She received her undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary and went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cornell University and a post-doctorate degree in polymer chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As a child, McNeil was a self-proclaimed “total nerd” and dabbled in many scientific fields. To understand physics, she would pour water down her driveway and observe how it moved through the crevasses in the gravel. Interested in earth sciences and sustainability, she wrote her grocery lists on handmade paper made of dryer lint. She satisfied her fascination with animals by housing pets such as hamsters, chameleons and goldfish.

In middle school, McNeil developed a passion for chemistry. During her job in a library, she frequently picked up science-related books and began to develop a specific interest in chemistry. As a curious individual, she said she thought she enjoyed the subject because it could answer the fundamental question of why things were the way they were.

“Just learning that concept that everything gets its properties just from the chemistry that’s behind it — how atoms are bonded together — is just what really kills me,” McNeil said. “Everything can be explained just by understanding how the atoms connect to each other, what they are, what their identity is."

After completing her education, McNeil began her research to further understand atoms and their properties. She specialized in organic materials and how their properties change when arranged in different formations.

One of her current research projects focuses on finding ways to stabilize organic solar cells, which could be used commercially as efficient solar panels that do not lose their properties over time. Another project deals with sensors that can detect harmful substances in the environment such as water pollutants.

Though she is certainly interested in finding practical purposes for her research, McNeil said she enjoys simply experimenting with different configurations of materials to learn what happens and why. She said even if she fails to develop a commercial product through her findings, the new understanding of the molecules she worked will provide enough satisfaction.

“In principle, if you change the application, the stuff you’ve learned along the way will still be useful,” she said. “So if you want to target something else, what we’ve learned about structure and how that influences how these things assemble, the relationship between the structure of the molecule and how it will interact with another molecule, learning that is independent of the application.”

McNeil’s research has earned numerous awards, such as the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Teacher-Scholar Award, the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and the Presidential Early Career Award in Scientists and Engineering, for which she met President Barack Obama.

Though research is important to McNeil, she does not let it distract her from being a helpful teacher to her students. LSA junior Sarah Cunningham, who took McNeil’s course in Organic Chemistry, said she appreciated McNeil’s constant effort to give priority to teaching.

“She really takes her time to get to know her students,” Cunningham said. “She’s not just one of those professors who focuses on their research and teaching is secondary.”

Though the bulk of her teaching is in a lecture setting, McNeil does her best to retain her students’ attention and keep them receptive. She said she “brings order to chaos” with structured outlines displayed at the beginning of every lecture. With these outlines, she strives to make her lectures as clear as possible while conveying how the topics covered correlate with one another.

Another one of McNeil’s techniques is to remind students often of how the material they learn relates to previously covered topics, as well as real world concepts. She uses demonstrations and YouTube clips to bring the theories and concepts into action. Her goal is to help her students see “how it all fits together.”

“I’ll try to use real world examples whenever possible so they can just enjoy the fact that they’re learning something about the world around them and not just some abstract concepts,” McNeil said. “I try to connect it to reality and their lives as much as possible.”

This organized, thoughtful teaching style has not gone unnoticed by her colleagues in the same department. Chemistry Prof. Brian Coppola, who was named Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in 2001, lauded McNeil’s enthusiasm and her genuine desire for her students to succeed in her class.

“She is friendly and supportive to students, while pushing them to achieve the highest standard of success,” Coppola said. “She doesn't simply teach students how to take tests, but instead she teaches people how to think about chemistry and how to appreciate why the discipline is so fascinating.”

Students have said McNeil’s love for the topics she teaches and for helping her students understand the coursework and apply it to their lives makes her a unique and memorable instructor.

“You can tell she’s always so prepared for class and wants to do her very, very best job,” Cunningham said. “I think she’s one of the best professors I’ve ever had in this University in terms of explaining things so well and organizing things so well.”