Student Success

Foreign study placement leads to post-doc at Princeton

For Connor MacNeil, graduate school turned out to be the tale of two Pauls.

While doing his undergraduate degree in chemistry at New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University, his research supervisor, Dr. Steve Westcott, suggested he call the University of Lethbridge’s Dr. Paul Hayes, who had also been a student of Westcott’s. Westcott mentioned they had similar research interests and thought they would get along.

Photo by Jon Darmon

“I could tell right away it was going to be a good fit,” says MacNeil. “It’s an important part of starting grad school. If you don’t get along with your supervisor, then it can be a really unpleasant few years.”

Hayes was on study leave in Germany when MacNeil first called but that didn’t stop him from moving across the country to start working as a research associate in Hayes’ lab in the U of L’s Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. The year was 2014 and MacNeil had heard about plans to build a new science building. He wanted to get in on the ground floor.

“Seeing how the department has evolved physically and, with the new talent that we’ve brought in, securing a Canada Research Chair in organofluorine chemistry and the friends I’ve made along the way, it has been a great experience,” says MacNeil.

MacNeil is pursuing a PhD, now in its final stages. He wanted to focus on problem solving during his graduate studies and that’s what he found in Hayes’ lab — a team of problem solvers who ask interesting questions and have their eye on how chemistry can play a role in solving global challenges like climate change and developing new pharmaceuticals.

“The things I’m focusing on specifically in my PhD research are reactions pertaining to the hydrogen economy,” says MacNeil. “I’ve shown that organic molecules containing element-hydrogen bonds react with a metal complex to release hydrogen gas. When you break it down, hydrogen is a versatile reagent in all kinds of chemistry and my PhD research looks at new methods to generate hydrogen from common organic molecules in a straightforward way.”

“It has been a true pleasure working with Connor over the past few years,” says Hayes, who is also a member of the Canadian Centre for Research in Advanced Fluorine Technologies (C-CRAFT). “We both enjoy brainstorming ideas and often find ourselves drawing out new chemical reactions long after most of our colleagues have gone home for the evening.”

While working away at his own research, MacNeil was also following the work being done in Paul Chirik’s lab at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. Chirik’s expertise is in organometallic chemistry, using environmentally friendly catalysts made from abundant earth elements including iron and cobalt.

“I’d been interested in the work that Paul Chirik was doing at Princeton since I started graduate school and it had always been a dream of mine to work in that area of chemistry,” MacNeil says. “I never thought it would be possible for me to work in that lab at Princeton.”

Because MacNeil received the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship, he was able to secure the prestigious Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement. He contacted Chirik, who was enthusiastic about MacNeil spending the fall semester in his lab.

“It was a bit surreal because you hear about all the amazing research that this group does and then, all of a sudden, you’re dropped in and you’re a part of the group and conversing with people that you’ve admired,” he says. “Everybody at Princeton is at the top of their game and that was a world I wanted to immerse myself in.”

MacNeil focused on doing the best he possibly could with the time he was given. The first month brought a lot of trying and failing. He persevered and often found himself working away in the lab near midnight with a smile on his face because there was nowhere else he wanted to be.

“I think I made a positive impact on the group and, in the four months I was there, I was able to complete a project and actually publish a paper in Angewandte Chemie,” he says. “I’m going back — I was offered a post-doctoral position at Princeton after I conclude my studies here. My time there was highly productive and Paul Chirik and I got along really well. The way he thinks about science is something that fits well with my goals.”

“Connor has really matured as a scientist, so when the opportunity came along to work with Prof. Chirik at Princeton I knew he was well prepared for the challenge,” says Hayes. “Thus, it was not a surprise that he was an outstanding ambassador for the University of Lethbridge and that he flourished in the high-pressure environment. His future is incredibly bright and I look forward to following his career and continuing to bounce ideas back and forth.”

MacNeil is currently working on writing his PhD thesis and plans to finish it this summer. He says he hopes to spend time with family in New Brunswick before moving to Princeton at the end of the summer, depending on border restrictions and public health directives.

“I definitely miss being in the lab and I miss seeing people working on science,” he says. “If there’s one thing I learned during this time alone is that science is collaborative in nature.”