When Jeanne McHale tells people what she does for work, they are sometimes surprised. Her warm, outgoing demeanor is not what they expect from a chemistry professor.
They say, “You don’t look like a chemistry professor,” she said. Or they say something like, “I hated chemistry.”
McHale is not quite sure what a chemistry professor should look like, or why people are inclined to hate chemistry. What she does know is that the field offers challenges. And despite the stereotype, being a scientist does not mean life is dull, spent in a laboratory, or that she is unaware of what goes on outside the world of science.
McHale, a professor in Washington State University’s Physical Chemistry Department, traded her black and gold Vandal colors this past August for the crimson and gray and will teach undergraduate and graduate courses in addition to conducting research. She has taught at the U of I since 1980.
McHale entered the world of science as a teenager. As a high school student in Ohio, she wanted to get her chemistry requirement out of the way. She signed on for a summer class, never expecting that would lead her into a future of studying and teaching chemistry.
“I was not the kind of kid who had a chemistry set,” she said. But she became hooked on “the whole experience of finding out, explaining things that we take for granted in every day life.”
Inspired by her high school science teacher, McHale went on to Wright State University in Ohio, where she graduated with an undergraduate degree in chemistry. A Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Utah followed in 1979.
Throughout her school years, male professors and primarily male students surrounded McHale. Today, she is one of three women tenured/tenure-track professors at WSU out of 19 tenured/tenure-track professors in the Chemistry Department. She is unsure exactly why the science fields tend to be dominated by men, but she said gender should be irrelevant when it comes to teaching or selecting a field of study.
“All my professors were male, but I got a lot of encouragement from them,” she said. “It just shows you can be a role model without being exactly the same.”
On-stage during off hours
While this professor can rattle off whole lessons about the structure of molecules, Raman spectroscopy, or the search for safe and inexpensive dye sensitizers for solar energy conversion, McHale is a lot like some of her experiments. On the surface she is predictably professional, but there is a side that people may not see right off.
An outdoors person, she loves to hike and bicycle, and can sometimes be seen biking the nine miles from her home in Moscow to the WSU campus. She also can be seen on stage.
“I play with the Snake River Six. It’s a jazz band that has been around for about 80 years,” she explained.
This piano-playing vocalist also performs with two other bands: a swing band called the Hog Heaven Big Band and the Boogie Doctors, where she belts out boogie-woogie, jazz and polka tunes alongside her husband and a friend. She has played in the bands for about three years and has found it to be a great way to meet new people.
Though the people she meets are sometimes surprised to learn of her work as a chemistry professor, she is sure to let them know that science is not exclusive. It is a field open to anyone, male or female, outgoing or not, who has a thirst for knowing why things work the way they do.