University of Michigan
Creating REAL (Research Experiences in Authentic Laboratories) Science
University of Michigan professor Anne McNeil knows that equations and electron diagrams rarely get students excited about the power of chemistry. As an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, McNeil was captivated by a professor who drew on his experience as an industrial chemist to connect the concepts he was teaching to real-world applications. Her enthusiasm started her toward a career in which she designs and synthesizes novel compounds for alternative energy technologies, chemical sensing, and medical applications. It also keeps her focused on demonstrating to her own students how chemistry is relevant to their lives.
McNeil earned a PhD in chemistry from Cornell University, and then did postdoctoral research on conductive polymers in the lab of Timothy Swager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2007, she set up her own lab in the University of Michigan. Her research program focuses on two areas: designing molecules that self-assemble into gels when exposed to chemical stimuli, and developing new methods for the synthesis of polymers with useful properties for emerging technologies.
Gels are a poorly understood material, McNeil says. They form when molecules come together in one-dimension – lining up in a row rather than aggregating into a three-dimensional crystal. “But nobody really knows how to design this feature into a molecule,” she says. Because she thinks gels have great practical potential, McNeil has developed a method to predict which small molecules are likely to form gels. At the same time, her lab has had success in creating molecules that transform a solution into a gel only in the presence of a specific chemical or biological molecule, such as lead, mercury, or a disease marker. “What I imagined when I started my career was that you'd buy a vial from the drug store, spit into it or drop some blood into it, shake it up a little bit, and if it turned into a gel, it's a positive test,” she says.
A second component of McNeil's research program is devoted to the design of new polymers. Polymers are made up of single molecules called monomers that come together into organized repetitive structures to form a material. Organizing these monomers into the desired arrangement – a process called sequence control – is challenging, so McNeil’s group has focused on designing new catalysts to achieve this. This work led to the design of catalysts that can be used to synthesize polymers that stabilize thin films such as those used in organic solar cells, so that the materials do not lose efficiency with time and heat exposure.
In addition to her research activities, McNeil is now serving on the leadership committee for an NSF-funded project aimed at transforming the culture of science education at the University of Michigan. The team joins members of the university's biology, chemistry, math, and physics departments in evaluating effective methods and identifying opportunities for improvement. “We're having this big conversation that is getting people talking and thinking about education campus-wide,” McNeil says.
McNeil already thinks carefully about how she presents material to her own students, keeping students engaged by ensuring they grasp the real-life implications of the concepts she teaches. In 2008, she decided to give her students the responsibility of customizing the class to their own interests, and tasked them with revising existing content on Wikipedia on a page about any topic related to the course material. Working in small groups, students drafted content for the website and critiqued their classmates' work before posting the new material to Wikipedia.
“They do a fantastic job,” she says. More than 150 students have now contributed science content to Wikipedia through McNeil's courses – and the idea is spreading. University of Michigan students now edit Wikipedia content in courses including astronomy, history, and social work. In 2010, the Wikimedia Foundation asked McNeil and her colleagues to advise them on a nationwide project to explore the use of Wikipedia as a teaching tool, laying the groundwork for their current education program.
More recently, McNeil worked with colleague Brian Coppola to develop an online tool for students enrolled in introductory organic chemistry. The program offers students hundreds of practice problems that involve transferrable skills that McNeil and Coppola identified as being frequent stumbling blocks. For each problem, the program offers specific feedback to help guide students to mastery of the skills. McNeil recruited honors and independent study students to construct, review, and edit the program's questions and feedback.
As an HHMI professor, McNeil wants to provide students at various levels with authentic research experiences. The first of her initiatives will revamp the university's introductory organic chemistry lab, which is taken by as many as 2,000 freshmen each year.
Instead of simple, recipe-based lab experiments where the answer is already known, the students will make a hypothesis and then design and perform an experiment to test this hypothesis. As an example, the students might be asked to design an alternative purification strategy that minimizes the use of environmentally toxic solvents but yields the same amount of pure product.
McNeil also plans to bring students and faculty from the local community college, Washtenaw, to the University of Michigan to participate in chemistry research. McNeil hopes this program, together with career advising and a seminar program, will help attract a diverse group of students to science and engineering majors. Additionally, a ten-week summer program will offer high-school students firsthand experience synthesizing polymers in a University of Michigan laboratory.