Hi reddit, I’m Faye McNeill. I’m a professor of chemical engineering at Columbia University, where I lead an environmental research group. I also am a wife and mom.

I recently became the first female professor to be tenured in my department, which was founded more than 100 years ago!

I’m an editor for an open access scientific journal and I’m in leadership roles in two professional societies, AIChE (www.aiche.org) and AAAR (www.aaar.org).

I’m also currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Experiment.com for a student-lead project on a natural alternative to the toxic chemicals currently used for oil spill cleanup: https://experiment.com/projects/can-naturally-occurring-soap-like-materials-be-used-for-oil-spill-response

Today I’m here so that you can Ask Me Anything!


*For more about me

*For more about my research

EDIT: OK folks, I have to get back to my day job for a bit, but it's been great! I'll try to get back and answer a few more questions later tonight!

EDIT: Thanks everyone for taking the time to come ask questions!

Comments: 576 • Responses: 70  • Date: 

snozberrywaffle102 karma

Hey Professor!

I am actually a female PhD candidate in chemical engineering. When I first started thinking of graduate school, I was pretty convinced that I wanted to be a professor. That desire rapidly faded as I started watching some professors go through the tenure process and put up with, frankly, a lot of BS. Since then, I've lined myself up for an R&D job in big oil or some related company, but would like to perhaps end up getting back into teaching (probably without the research group) down the line.

Actual question: Do you feel being in a very competitive academic environment made/makes life hard to balance? Do you feel your gender makes that balance easier or harder than normal?

vfmcneill89 karma

I also saw many junior professors acting crazy stressed up until tenure time when I was a grad student. This is why I didn't decide for sure that I wanted to go the faculty route until I was a postdoc and had some more relatable young faculty role models with families.

I feel that the huge amount of autonomy and flexibility I have had as a professor has made work-life balance a little easier for me than for some of my peers in industry. The first several years it can be stressful and you have to be concious about making boundaries for yourself, but on a day to day timescale you're your own boss. Many universities also have awesome maternity/family leave policies.

strongcoffee81 karma

Greetings from the UC Davis chapter of the Society of Women Engineers!

Chemically speaking, what makes an environmentally friendly surfactant? And why can't we just use the surfactants that are marketed as "green"?

vfmcneill76 karma

In the case of the project I'm working on, the surfactants we propose to use already exist in the ocean! So by using them for oil spill cleanup we wouldn't be adding any synthetic surfactants to the marine ecosystem. That's what we mean by environmentally friendly surfactants.

strongcoffee46 karma

Can you introduce bacteria/plankton to generate the fulvic acid? Or does it have to be purified on land and then brought to the spill?

vfmcneill51 karma

That's an interesting question I hadn't thought about before. I imagine directly applying bacteria/plankton would have a more immediate effect on the spill, before they have a chance to generate the fulvic acid. Something to think about!

garnteller65 karma

Hi Professor McNeill - thanks for doing the AMA.

Not a question but a story. In the 80's, I met a woman who had been one of the first female engineering grads from Cornell - I think this was in the 1940s.

Unfortunately, after graduation, no one would hire her, so she ended up as a realtor (and quite a good one) but what a shame.

I'm just glad to see things are improving - not as quickly as it should be, but at least better.

vfmcneill47 karma

I have so much admiration for women in that generation. It's unreal how much things have changed.

blebbelb57 karma

Can you explain why a Sippy Cup, when filled with milk, will eventually start leaking through the straw, but this behavior will not happen when the Sippy Cup is filled with water?

oscarjas9 karma

Is that a real phenomenon? It kinda screams "toast always lands with the buttered-side down" to me...

vfmcneill89 karma

Oh, sippy cup drama is REAL. Try it at home!

columbiacheme54 karma

Hi Prof.McNeill,

We are your students here at Columbia and we are really happy and proud of you! Also really glad someone brought up the sippy cup:)

vfmcneill30 karma

Aww thanks guys.

IamRule3449 karma

Do you ever feel out of place as a women in a predominantly male driven field? I know my friend who's an ME student says she pushes herself to be better than everyone else because she doesn't want people to think she was handed things due to her gender.

vfmcneill84 karma

Yeah. I don't feel that way anymore, but I had that feeling a lot as a student. When I was an undergrad at Caltech my incoming class was only 20% female. Although we all knew at the time that they didn't lower the bar for females in their admissions I did have a feeling like I wasn't a real techer, both because of gender and other things in my background, for the first couple of years. That feeling, which someone from any group can have for different reasons, can do a lot of negative things like make you lose confidence, cause you to set lower expectations for yourself, and generally hold you back from doing your best and being happy. I let go of it sometime around my junior year, thanks in part to some positive interactions with a faculty mentor at around that time. I threw myself into my classes and undergrad research, started kicking ass, and never looked back.

new_american_stasi9 karma

I don't have a question, but I wanted to give you mad props because without a doubt, Chem E was considered the most difficult engineering discipline at the more modest school I went to. Interestingly, one of the tenured Chemical Engineer professors, who received her PHD from Princeton, had a grading methodology that revolved around "would I want this person working in a power facility in the vicinity where I lived."; she had semesters where not a single "A" was given.

I think its great you are encouraging women to become involved in engineering. I was a bit jealous of the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) group where tenured professors would help students succeed by laborious hands on tutoring, but if you are a women interested in science or engineering there is likely a nice support structure that hopefully mitigates the current gender ratios.

vfmcneill17 karma

Thanks for your mad props! I wasn't as lucky as your friends so I didn't have a support network of female faculty until I became a postdoc and met some members of the Earth Science Women's Network. I did however have supportive male mentors through the years.

Shark_Beard47 karma


vfmcneill119 karma

I grew up middle class and went to public schools. I was the first person in my family to get a PhD. My parents value education really highly, especially my mother. She always said education is the one thing that no matter what happens in life, no one can take that from you. Smart lady.

Not everyone in the extended family was supportive. I got a lot of questions along the lines of why was I working so hard and not making money? When was I going to join the 'real world'? I think they all get it now.

ephantmon43 karma

What do you make of the controversies over WHY there are so many fewer women in the hard sciences, math, and engineering majors in college? Do you see institutional sexism within those majors? Is it more attributable to social pressures? Or is it (as Lawrence Summers advocated, much to his chagrin) possibly rooted in sex-based neurological differences?

vfmcneill115 karma

Actually in many STEM areas, including chemical engineering, the gender balance is pretty even at the undergrad level (computer science is a big exception to this). Then the balance starts to become more and more uneven as you move to graduate school, and on to the faculty level. This phenomenon, known as the "leaky pipeline," is something that many are trying to understand. It is probably related in many cases to the timing of the demands of the tenure track and how they coincide with the period of life where a woman is likely to want to have/raise children. In other cases it's probably related to women feeling less encouraged, in subtle ways, to go on to advanced studies. It doesn't have anything to do with innate ability. Many of the smartest people I know are women, and I know a lot of smart people!

AjarKeen24 karma

I noticed the same thing -- my ChE undergrad 10 years ago was pretty close to an even split, but almost all of the ones I know who went on to graduate programs -- maybe 10% of the class, so not a ton of people -- are men. And a lot of the women who didn't go to grad school had kids in that time frame. I didn't go to grad school either, but I also didn't have kids, so I guess I lose? :P (Not really, I have a pretty great life. :D )

Is there any evidence to suggest that women in STEM and/or in academia need more success / better credentials than men to land the same job? I have quite a few friends in STEM who are women, and a lot of them definitely perceive that to be the case in their own working lives.

Edit: Oh, I guess I was unclear about my own gender. I'm a guy, I'm just interested in these issues.

vfmcneill47 karma

I will speak about your second point just from my experience and observations. I don't personally know any cases of this where a job was on the line. But I do know that in the early stages of a career, it's pretty typical that if you take a man and a woman, each with the same CV, the man will feel and act more confident. That could help him get a job. Good news: I see this changing with today's students and faculty applicants. Lots of very confident, smart, highly skilled young ladies out there. Keep it up!

arnavk007-10 karma

Are half of the smartest people you know, women?

vfmcneill34 karma

There aren't enough people in that group (the smartest people I know) to have a statistical sample.

QEDLondon36 karma

Given your experience, what is your advice for helping my daughter become interested in science (she's only 2 but this is important and I want to be prepared to help her)? I only came to love science after university and regret that I didn't get into it earlier.

vfmcneill67 karma

I have a two year old son too! I think picasso said that all children are born artists, the problem is how to remain an artist as they grow up (paraphrase). I think the same goes for science. Kids are so curious at this age and they're always experimenting. They get really delighted when they learn something new. I think it's important to reinforce that sense of joy in discovery in both girls and boys and try to keep it going, especially through grade school where the curriculum can get pretty rote and uninspiring.

the-jawn17 karma

How do you feel about coding as the movement du jour in K-12 education? Do you think it'll be effective in getting more people interested in STEM, or is the heavy coding push in schools less effective than advertised?

oscarjas7 karma

This is an awesome question! Code-days for young people sprout up on a daily basis, and it seems like other disciplines are scrambling to catch up. Do you see programming as a stepping stone for kids into other STEM disciplines, or are you worried about an excessive focus on CS?

the-jawn8 karma

Coding is excellent because it emphasizes the ability to identify a problem, break it down into smaller chunks, and use critical thinking and trial and error to make parts of a whole. (That, and the fact that spelling, punctuation and capitalization actually do count - hello, syntax errors.)

For me, I think it's a brilliant thing for kids to learn, and that's regardless of it being a stepping stone to STEM. Anyone can get something out of learning to code.

vfmcneill23 karma

Hi, I think that more emphasis on coding at a young age is great and I can't wait till my son writes his first code. I could have greatly benefited from being exposed to coding in high school before being thrown into the deep end in college. That being said, not everyone finds coding 'fun' (I know, it's hard to believe) and I think there are a lot of other STEM-related activities that could help capture the interest of young students.

honeyandvinegar15 karma

  1. Do you feel like you had to change yourself on a personal level to gain tenure? I'm a bit shocked at how many female professors seem to act "harder" to their students than male professors , and I often feel there is pressure to askew plans for family as it comes off as "unprofessional". How did you overcome this, especially within a male-dominated department?

  2. There's quite a bit of controversy about how females are still extremely underrepresented within STEM faculty. I think this may be that when faculty positions were more available, less women were getting advanced degrees. Do you think this women being underrepresented is from job shortages or academic sexism?

vfmcneill25 karma

  1. Although I did change some things about the way I talked as a student to sound more professional (I did my best to drop "likes," rising tone at the end of the sentence, and tried to talk in full sentences/thoughts), I think I have had the opposite problem. My personality naturally tends to be a little intense and I can seem stern or intimidating when I'm talking about science stuff. I get comments in teaching evaluations like I should "smile more" and "why so serious." Would a male prof get those? probably not.

  2. Female scientists in the generation above mine had a very different experience from me, so it's hard for me to say. I think that it was a combination of those things. And it wasn't just within academia. When my mother was young a woman couldn't even get a bank loan.

xxjulzmariexx14 karma

I'm about to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering and have a few questions.

How have you managed to balance having a family and children with also having a strong career? I'm constantly being told by my male and female peers that I'll have to chose one or the other, not both.

Also, how have you dealt with being looked down upon or underestimated simply for being female? Or even straight up sexual harassment? I worked an internship in manufacturing last summer and I dealt with a lot of this, mostly from the union workers on the factory floor. I definitely wasn't prepared for that and had no idea how to handle it.

vfmcneill13 karma

I think that today it's a big oversimplification to say that you have to make a black and white choice between career and family. Everyone's circumstances and preferences are different but I see a lot of women around me making it work. I feel like being happy and fulfilled in my career also makes me a better mom in some ways, and vice versa.

I'm really sorry to hear that you were harassed at your internship. I feel so bad that an experience that was meant to help you turned out like that. But, that being said, sometimes the benefit of internships is teaching us about what kind of jobs and environments we would not like to work in. I think you will find there are plenty of more professional environments where you can practice your mechanical engineering and be respected for your work. Also, anger can be a great motivator.

Classicdadjokes13 karma

Not to rain on your parade,but...Do you agree with the tenure system? Debates have been made that it fails to challenge teachers and keeps them employed regardless of wether they actually do a good job or not. As someone who's worked in education,I've felt it's an outdated system and that more qualified teachers remain unemployed/underemployed because of it.

vfmcneill30 karma

Well, this is a complex issue. But I do believe in the academic freedom that tenure is meant to offer professors in their research. I have always felt confident in trying a splashy/novel idea, but you can work on projects with a longer time horizon or higher risk projects if you're secure in your position. I also feel more comfortable speaking to the public about my research now that I have tenure. This is really important in environmental research.

choboy45612 karma

how old were you when you first became interested in being an engineer?

vfmcneill18 karma

I first started thinking about it seriously in my junior year of high school.

dracarys31710 karma

I see you went to CalTech for your undergrad and from what I've read CalTech has a ridiculously high percentage of students who go on to earn advanced degrees. How did CalTech's educational philosophy, environment, faculty, and student body impact your success in graduate school and in the academic world? I ask because I have attended 2 other tier 1 research universities in California for undergrad and grad school but have been made aware of the fact that the CalTech undergrad experience is somehow much different.

vfmcneill11 karma

The undergraduate curriculum at Caltech is very rigorous and theory-oriented, so it is a very good preparation for graduate school and an academic career. That being said I don't think that the majority of my peers went on to graduate school. A lot of them got burned out on tech after the intense environment there.

metalman2779 karma

Your experiment.com project looks great and promising! How soon could you see your project start being used to clean up oil spills?

vfmcneill12 karma

Thanks! If our campaign is successful it'll happen a lot sooner! (experiment.com has an all-or-nothing funding model, so if we don't meet the target, we're back to sqare one!)

cmbyrd9 karma

Do you find that your peers or students are either intimidated by you, or don't take you particularly seriously as a women in your field? Or are you treated like your male peers and judged primarily (or exclusively) on the merit of your work?

vfmcneill27 karma

I don't think I have a problem being taken seriously now, but I can think of a few incidents when I was a student where that was probably the case. I did my best to make myself into an expert in my field, and to carry myself professionally, to not give anyone a reason not to take me seriously. Now, I don't worry about other's judgements too much at this point and just try to do great science that I can be proud of.

savetheplanet12349 karma

How is the crowdfunding campaign going? It's not the traditional method of funding projects.

vfmcneill12 karma

It has been a really interesting experience! I didn't quite know what to expect when we started. The way traditional funding programs work, the work stops when you hit "submit." In crowdfunding, that's just the beginning - it's all about getting the word out! So I have learned a lot in the process. Hopefully it'll be a success too and we can keep the project going!

eoin639 karma

Hi, Professor.

I know your family must be very proud of you. I find it a little unsettling that you are the first woman in your department to tenured, congratulations.

I have an almost 20-year old son who has basically failed out of mechanical engineering this past semester is attempted to retake a couple of courses this semester to get off of academic probation. He is now basically adrift and unsure what to do, and I fear might not get a degree in anything.

Without knowing him or anymore than I've shared with you would have advice on ways his mom and I might guide or encourage him.

Thanks for taking the time to do this AMA.

vfmcneill9 karma

Hi, I'm sorry to hear about your son having a tough time. It's really hard to give specific advice without knowing the whole story, but I would say the following: if you think he has a love for engineering/math/science, and if he has the time, encourage him to stay at least peripherally involved in a technical field, including perhaps tutoring high school kids in math, or volunteering in a lab somewhere. Maybe he'll pick up the thread again later, or find a new path.

DrOil8 karma

Professors usually have two primary roles at the university: research and teaching. In my experience Engineering profs are generally focused and evaluated on research, often to the determent quality instruction. Is this the best way to provide quality instruction to engineering students?

vfmcneill9 karma

When I first came to Columbia I was happy to see that there was a culture where many senior professors around me were proud of their excellence in teaching, and that my raises were based in part on teaching evaluations. Research is always #1 at institutions like this one, but most of us do have a love for teaching and being rewarded, at least a little bit, for doing it well can help.

hydroprof8 karma

I'm a junior female engineer-my sister is actually in engineering at Columbia right now.

I'm dealing with some unfortunate sexism in the work place where relationships about myself and others are being insinuated?

How do you deal with stuff like that where you're like seriously!? Why is this still happening!?

vfmcneill4 karma

I am really sorry to hear about your experiences at work. Take pride in your work and be professional, but maybe look for other opportunities since this sounds like a pretty toxic work environment. It'll get better!

neves02028 karma

In an age of open source education and new ways of accessing/archiving knowledge, how do you foresee research institutions change?

vfmcneill16 karma

I think it's really difficult to predict where things are going with open source education. I really like that the playing field is being leveled a bit and people from all over the world who might not have access to a world class university can supplement their education with, say, MIT Open Courseware. One problem is, how do we give credentials for these kinds of activities? Also, as much as I love the internet, there's simply no substitute for hands on experiments and in person conversations.

Throbulator80008 karma

How young are you and why should I care about your age?

vfmcneill14 karma

I'm 35. It's not that young but it's on the young side for a tenured professor. It's relevant from the perspective of me giving career advice since my experience is different from someone who got tenure 20 years ago.

Aykayy8 karma

As someone who is just beginning their journey to become an engineer, I am curious if you have any useful tips that I might be able to use along the way. Completing an engineering program seems like a fairly daunting task, and any advice would be appreciated.

vfmcneill23 karma

Always try to find something to love about what you're doing. When I was a student, even during the long nights working on problem sets etc. at least a small part of me was always kind of in awe of how cool the material I was learning was, and I liked the feeling that I was gradually transforming into a highly trained expert, like a kung fu master or something. It keeps you going.

Also, find a good mentor you can talk to. Most professors are more approachable than you think. You're not wasting their time. Talking to you is what they get paid to do.

botkat3 karma

Expanding on this a little. I'm an optical engineering student and while completing my thesis found the lack of relevant information in my research topic unnerving. I presume being in the research field you are used to this. As students living in the digital age we more or less think everything has been discovered and published and therefore are completely unprepared to discover a brick wall. I now know better, but I'd like to know your advice in regards to all this for anyone interested in pursuing research and most importantly the right way to go about contacting professors from other universities/countries such that they don't consider you a leech.

vfmcneill3 karma

I know what you mean. When it comes to research, if all the answers already existed, it wouldn't be research. Also, when you are new to research sometimes it takes a little while to build up an understanding of the field so that you can place things in context and you can get intuition for whether something is really unknown, and therefore a new area ripe for discovery, or whether you just haven't found the relevant papers yet. Before contacting folks at other institutions just check with your research advisor first, until you get a feel for the type of questions that are most likely to get answered. You may find this article interesting: http://jcs.biologists.org/content/121/11/1771.full

kiss-tits8 karma

I'm a female senior Computer Science major here; heading for a BS. What are some of the reasons you chose to go into graduate school over the industry?

It takes long enough to get the bachelors, going any higher sounds so difficult. My family definitely values getting a paycheck over higher education, so I was raised with a slight bias against grad school. I'm considering it as an option though. How did you maintain your motivation over the years of schooling?

vfmcneill9 karma

Summer internships and summer research experiences, along with some encouragement from mentors, are what helped me make my decision to go to grad school. I observed during my non-academic internships that the people with the really interesting jobs whereever I worked always had PhDs. Also I fell in love with research and figured that, whether I ultimately ended up in academia or industry, I wanted research to be a part of it. I always wanted to do something interesting and intellectually challenging.

You may or may not be aware that in computer science and other engineering fields you actually get paid to do a Ph.D. Your tuition is paid for either by a teaching assistantship or research assistantship, and you get a modest stipend. So you can survive and you don't go deeper in student debt. As a CS PhD student you actually have the opportunity to do lucrative internships over the summer too!!

RowingChemist8 karma

I've read a few of your papers! :O

vfmcneill7 karma

Hope you liked them. If you're interested, read some more! http://mcneill-lab.org/publications/

Veronica_Spars8 karma

Holy cow, you are one crazy driven and successful person! How do you stay motivated? What's the secret to stop procrastinating?

vfmcneill6 karma

Really, I love my job, so it's pretty easy to stay motivated. I am not naturally a procrastinator because I like the feeling of getting things done. But if you are putting off working on something in particular, it helps to set microgoals for yourself until you get momentum on it. Also, be realistic about how much stuff you put on your to do list for one day. If you put two+ days' worth of work on your to do list, you'll still feel stressed at the end of the day if you only accomplish half of it, even if it was an honest days' work.

aerynsun7 karma

Do you have an opinion on how I can counteract the middle and high school system that is already steering my daughters away from STEM? My field is accounting/finance so I can't exactly lead by example but I want them to consider STEM fields just as attainable (with hard work) as any other.

vfmcneill5 karma

It might help if you find some STEM-related activity outside of the school for them to engage in, like a class at a local museum or university. Even a good book or documentary might help keep them interested.

P.S. I consider accounting to be part of STEM, in the sense that it involves a lot of math!

jimrogue6 karma

Hi Professor Mcneill, I'm a 2nd year biochem undergraduate at Columbia and an avid redditor. As you can probably tell, due to the incredible amount of time I have invested into expanding my mind on reddit (this is a new account to maintain my anonymity), I do not have much lab experience. From one redditor to another, can I get some lab experience? Thanx. Mucho appreciado.

vfmcneill3 karma

sure, come talk to me IRL and maybe you can do some work in the lab!

gigigigigigi66 karma

What house were you in at Caltech?

vfmcneill11 karma

I was a flem. then I moved off campus the first chance I could get. I really needed a more peaceful environment in which to constantly do homework.

XRXR46 karma

What advice would you give your 20 year old self?

vfmcneill6 karma

cheer up! It's all going to turn out fine.

excludethisprinciple6 karma

Do you think the most probable state of a system is the one that minimizes the entropy of the system? True, false, or it depends...?

vfmcneill6 karma

Nice try, molecular phenomena student! :)

baldeagle17766 karma

Craziest way you've caught someone cheating?

vfmcneill24 karma

It's never really crazy. Cheating is boring and tedious because it's so predictable. We usually catch people copying a wrong answer from a solution manual or another student. Don't cheat, kids!

fluffykirby6 karma

Thank you for doing this AMA! I am a female ChemE PhD student in my second year. When I applied to grad school, I was strongly considering a career in academia, but have since become very disillusioned about the whole process (I'm very much a product of the "leaky pipeline").

I haven't completely ruled out the possibility of becoming a professor, so I have personal questions for you. My significant other and I have had discussions about getting married, settling down, and starting a family. Between graduate school, several postdocs, and maybe multiple junior faculty positions, how did you find the right timing? What does your husband do and how did he feel about constantly relocating? Lastly, how important is the name game? I have a couple publications with my last name (one in a high-impact journal), and I feel like there is strong pressure to keep that name recognition. Did you keep your maiden name? Did you take your husband's family name? Do you use one professionally and one privately?

vfmcneill9 karma

Everyone finds a way to solve this problem that works for them, based on their circumstances. I got married at the end of my postdoc, before beginning my faculty position. My husband is also in research. We chose to come to NYC in part because it offers more options than, say, a tiny college town for him to fulfill his career path. Re: the name - by the time I got married I had already published and was trying to "make a name for myself" so I did not change it. If I had gotten married younger I think that I would have. I have seen women do all sorts of things and it's a very personal decision. These days there are things like ResearcherID and scopus that allow you to curate your publication list and make it searchable even if you used different names in the past so maybe it's not as big of a deal now.

cookiecombs6 karma

Since we're on the topic of gender in higher ed... In the humanities [for example] women, people of color and LGBTQI have been historically underrepresented, and only now are more accepted into FT faculty ranks. In fact, most faculty searches explicitly recruit for these non- SWM hegemonic perspectives.

So, in the sciences, where things are still much more disproportionate, and lets say there are ... 5% are Female faculty, and 95% Male Faculty across institutions [?], and where women are graduating with advanced degrees in the sciences at say 20+% [real number unknown], and while FTF hiring will increasingly be female, are you optimistic about these big institutions "allowing" for a more balanced gender split? why or why not?

vfmcneill3 karma

I like to think that things are changing. People who are early in the pipeline now are getting more role models to look up to, and institutions are becoming more aware of the issue. I look even at faculty I know who have been hired in the last 7 years and I see a lot more female faces. We're slowly becoming part of the new normal.

Imthebestcya5 karma

Hello, thanks for doing this AMA!

What kind of student were you like in high school? Did you ever expect that you'd be able to become a tenured professor at a well-respected school when you were young? What do you think made yourself successful compared to others in pursuit of professorship? How was the process in general, and how did you balance other things in life with your career?

vfmcneill3 karma

I was a good student in high school. I liked most of my classes, including calculus, chemistry, and english. I was also very involved in music. When I went to college I thought that I was making a choice between engineering and some other major related to writing. Little did I know that as a professor I would spend a large fraction of my time writing. Also, I had no idea I would be a professor until I was doing my postdoctoral studies after my PhD. Re: succeeding, I think it helps that I like most parts of my job so I'm able to stay motivated. Re: balance, it's an ongoing process. I used to judge where I stood in my work-life balance by whether I mistakenly tried to use my office key to open my front door at home, or vice versa.

CupBeEmpty5 karma

I am really glad to see your lab does science outreach. My wife is a postdoc in physics looking for a tenure track job very soon. When she was in grad school her and an organic geo-chemist both did K-12 outreach. Especially with the young girls, I think seeing women working in high level science is wonderful.

My only question is whether you had paid maternity leave available to you when you had your kid(s) (I saw you had a son in another comment)? My wife and I expecting quite soon and she doesn't really have maternity leave but is working it out ad hoc with her boss and with other paid time off. Both grad students and professors have maternity leave so there is only a gap for postdocs which seems like a pretty common time for women in sciences to need the leave.

Good luck with research and be glad tenure review is over!

vfmcneill8 karma

The maternity leave/family leave policies are very often good for tenure track faculty. I had the usual maternity paid leave but I also had a semester off from teaching and committee responsibilities. I used that time to work from home (a babysitter came to the house) so that I could be close to my son. I feel really, really, lucky that I was able to do that. I also could have pushed my tenure evaluation back by one year but I didn't do that. Good luck to you and your wife!

qwranglin695 karma

I'm a ChE undergrad at Georgia tech. What was the most challenging concept as a chem e in undergrad

vfmcneill2 karma

I always tell my students that there are thermo people and there are transport people - one of these topics usually clicks much better than the other one for people. I was a transport person. Thermo was tough for me as an undergrad. It was easier in grad school. A lot of it depends on the instructor you have.

bstampl15 karma

What's your favorite chemical?

vfmcneill6 karma

Oh, there are so many... I'm partial to water though, as it appears in so many different forms in the environment and it's essential for life.

adamimos15 karma


vfmcneill4 karma

Make spending time together a priority. No matter how busy you are, no one can work all the time. At the very least try to spend meals together during the busy times and try to keep in touch when you're traveling through phone, gchat, etc. Do your best to unplug and actually be "present" during the times when you are together.

bigskycat5 karma

How did you first get involved in environmental research?

vfmcneill11 karma

I first got interested in the technical side of environmental issues thanks to example problems my professor used in various undergraduate classes. Then one summer I was looking for an internship and my academic advisor suggested that I do some research with him characterizing nanoscale particles in the atmosphere. I was skeptical at first but quickly fell in love with the topic. It was easy to be motivated to study atmospheric particles because a) I was in school in LA and the air pollution was terrible there at the time b) I have asthma, so I had a daily reminder of reason (a) when I used my inhaler and c) the science behind it was really elegant and interesting.

MonkeyJesusFresco5 karma

...you had me at engineering!!!

well crap, never mind, I started replying before I read your post...

Is experiment.com only for students or can lay-persons participate in some way?

vfmcneill11 karma

No, you don't have to be at a university to do a project on experiment.com. And you definitely don't have to be at a university to help support a project! Many projects have opportunities for donors to get involved in some way. For more information you can see their FAQ: https://experiment.com/faq

hypnobearcoup4 karma

Why does tenure even exist still? All it does is lower the quality of education since you can't fire them if they decide to give no fucks down the line.

vfmcneill4 karma

I see your point, and it's a hotly debated point these days, but tenure at a research institution is more about protecting academic freedom in research, which is important.

Distraction864 karma

Has anyone tried to seduce you for an A?

vfmcneill10 karma

No, they have not!

ski_girl4 karma

This seems like a really important research question with huge environmental implications. Why isn't big oil or the government interested in funding work like this? Or even anti-oil groups?

vfmcneill7 karma

Thanks! Our project is still in the early stages. If our current funding campaign is successful and we are able to continue the project and publish our data, hopefully we'll attract some other funding sources!

JuvenL4 karma

Even though your answer will probably be politically correct I'll give it a try 1- Do you like being a teacher or is it something you just have to do in order to continue your research (teaching seems so boring to me) 2- During your formation did you get to study/work in Europe?

vfmcneill4 karma

1) I love being a teacher! 2) I didn't, but I know many people who do.

ilikesumstuff6x4 karma

Hi Dr. McNeill,

I know it's 2 years too late, but congratulations on your tenure! Only 4 years as assistant professor is very impressive to me.

My question is, did you wait to have kids until after you gained tenure? If so, was this planned?

I am aiming to stay in academia (Biomedical Engineering) and I have a couple tenured role models but the female ones seem to have waited till after they secured tenure to have children. I don't see this for male faculty, without female faculty spouses, as much.

Thank you for this AMA and I wish you the best with all your research endeavors!

vfmcneill8 karma

Thanks! Actually I just got tenure a few weeks ago. At Columbia we promote faculty to Associate Professor before tenure. I had my son before tenure.

GAMEchief3 karma

Why are you still using chalkboards instead of white boards?

vfmcneill3 karma

whiteboard pens smell and leave residue on your hands. They don't erase that well. Chalkboards 4 LIFE!

MuchoMachoNacho3 karma

Before choosing your specific career path. Did you originally want to be an engineer, a chemist, or was it just a little bit of both?

vfmcneill4 karma

I decided on chemical engineering because I liked chemistry and math in high school. Also I heard you could get a good job with a Chem E education. I don't think I knew too much about what chemical engineering was actually about. This was before wikipedia. Our students come to the Chem E department at Columbia much better informed!

apharing110 karma

I think the whole "I liked chemistry and math so I combined them and went ChE but didn't really know what it was" is pretty universal in our field.

vfmcneill4 karma


bwalks0073 karma

Do you feel like you've had to sacrifice a lot of your family life to be where you are today, professionally? How do you feel about double standards in the work place, such as a woman who is assertive can be considered a bitch while an assertive man is doing a good job? Did you feel you have to prove yourself more than the men in your field? Thanks for the AMA!

vfmcneill3 karma

I've answered a few posts about work/family balance here so I don't want to repeat myself. But I don't feel like I've had to sacrifice my family life too much, and I feel very lucky about that.

Re: the double standard thing, I really like the new #banbossy campaign.

FragmentedCurve3 karma

How did you pay for your undergraduate and graduate schooling?

vfmcneill3 karma

undergraduate was loans taken out by me and my parents. My graduate schooling was paid for by MIT (and also, in part, a fellowship from NASA). It is very typical in STEM fields that PhD students get their tuition waived and get a small stipend, in exchange for their service as teaching or research assistants.

fancyflutist3 karma

How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?

vfmcneill10 karma

My 2 year old son is adorable and demands a lot of my attention and care, so the balance is coming pretty automatically these days. Somewhere in my first few years as a professor I also became pretty skilled at time management and multitasking at work (although I'm always trying to get better).

As a student I always had extracurricular activities, like music and dance, to keep things balanced. I was in the Caltech Jazz Band and I was really active in a performing latin dance group at MIT. I studied some indian dance and taught salsa lessons while I was a postdoc.

P.S. I like your username!

tedrick1113 karma

As a tenured professor, at the epicenter of this concept, do you feel that there's a "smart culture" that involves constantly having to prove one's intelligence, and if so, is it annoying or dogmatic?

I, for one, feel cromulently that this is the case.

vfmcneill10 karma

Really smart people don't have to prove that they're smart.

Dixzon3 karma

How do you deal with the frustration of people who read some conservative's blog post about global warming and then think they are more of an expert on the environment than every scientist ever? I am getting my PhD soon, and whenever my wingnut uncle starts going off about how it's a hoax and a conspiracy, I can never think of much to say besides, you don't know what you're talking about, you're wrong, shut up.

vfmcneill8 karma

That's a good question. It's hard. If it's someone you love and are really close to, take the time to talk with them about it even if they make you really mad. It might take a while. Otherwise, let it go, and/or refer them to a good information source and just drop the mic after that. The National Academies and the Royal Society just came out with a very readable primer on climate change. I'll look for the link and post it in a bit.

seikuu2 karma

what do you think about open science in science/engineering research? Open science is clearly easier where code and stuff is involved, but in my experience, people don't want to share experimental methods for science/engineering research.

vfmcneill3 karma

Actually in order to get your work published in a peer-reviewed journal, you need to describe your methods well enough that another scientist could reproduce them. So I don't see many instances in academics of people withholding information about their methods. This is probably different in industrial research.

lumberjack_dan2 karma

I was at a IEEE Conference and a speaker said there isn't enough female engineers in the workforce and that we need to change that. How would this be possible if choosing your degree is a personal choice?

vfmcneill3 karma

The key is understanding the reasons why people make their choices. Sometimes the reasons women choose whether or not to go into engineering go beyond personal taste and have more to do with how welcoming the profession is towards them, whether they feel like they fit in, whether it's compatible with the life they want, whether they experience harassment, etc. Those are the sorts of things we can work on.

ardreeves2 karma

I see you did your post-doc in Seattle. What did you think of the area? I am curious if you think crowd funding is a good alternative to the falling budget of the NIH/NSF. I am planning to do a kKckstarter campaign to fund a project to create a hair loss drug (which I discovered during my research experience as a grad student) but I might consider Experiment.com as well.

vfmcneill4 karma

I love Seattle although I have since lived in New York long enough that I have grown to love it here more. I think crowdfunding is a great complement to traditional funding methods. My impression is that kickstarter is more startup oriented and experiment.com is more research oriented - you have to be asking a science question. Here's their FAQ for more info: https://experiment.com/faq

youraccent-11 karma

Cool! I searched you up and you look wonderful too, which is awesome.

vfmcneill10 karma

Thank you!