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Chemists Bonding

Professor Nancy Mills joins network for senior women scientists, enjoys student interaction

By Susie P. Gonzalez

Nancy Mills

Professor Nancy Mills

August 2010 — For the first time in her life, Trinity University chemistry professor Nancy Mills found herself in a room of 50 faculty members from the academic disciplines of chemistry and physics. What made the gathering unique is that all 50 were women and all held the status of full professor.

“I have never been in a large scientific gathering in which women were in the majority. It was a very exciting time,” Mills said after attending the first-ever summit for the Advancement of Senior Women Scientists at Liberal Arts Colleges in Washington, D.C. in June. She was the only scientist from Texas to attend.

The two-day sessions were supported by the National Science Foundation and represent one of the high points of a chemistry career marked with dozens of distinctions – her selection as a Fellow of the Council of Undergraduate Research in 2006, a Distinguished Achievement Award in Scholarship at Trinity in 2007, a Piper Professor appointment in 1999, and Trinity’s highest faculty award, the  Z.T. Scott Faculty Fellowship for Teaching and Service in 1992, to name a few of her teaching and research awards and honors.

Mills, who arrived at Trinity in 1979 and has chaired the chemistry department for two terms, still focuses on the student experience and says chemistry undergraduates continue to teach her new things because, “They have a fresh eye.” She describes her research group as “bright and capable” and confident in the science they are doing. “It is an absolute pleasure to work with them,” she said.

Unlike most organic chemists – who study stable molecules – the researchers under Mills’ tutelage are looking at unstable compounds. Her research group “stumbled” into a new frontier of chemistry, by inadvertently making compounds that theory said should be too unstable to exist. “We have made discoveries that you wouldn’t expect of undergraduates.” Details about her work were first published in 1994 and caught the attention of funding agencies.

In fact, Mills has received more than $2 million in research grants and another million for instruments where she was listed as the principal investigator. The research funds and instruments inform her teaching, which is vital to a school like Trinity in a department like chemistry. “Students really appreciate good teaching, because the material is perceived as hard,” she said. “The students are prepared to work hard but they are also apprehensive about their ability to succeed. When they do succeed, they are empowered. Knowing that you can succeed in something that you know is hard, makes you more willing to try other areas.”

Lest you think Mills is a stuffy scientist, she has taught a forensics-styled course about the chemistry of crime and spoken to community groups about the chemistry of cooking. A bumper sticker on her office door reads, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.” 

Courses Taught

  • Organic Chemistry and lab

  • Organic and Bioorganic Chemistry and lab

  • Advanced Interdisciplinary Chemistry: Kinetics and Mechanisms

  • Chemistry of Crime

Selected Publications

  • B.J. Dahl, and N.S. Mills, “Antiaromaticity in distal bisfluorenyl dications separated by multiple discrete spacer units” Organic Letters, 2008, 10, 5605–5608.

  • M Piekarski (Trinity University undergraduate), N.S. Mills, and A.Yousef, “Dianion and dication of tetrabenzo [5.7] fulvalene. Greater antiaromaticity than aromaticity in comparable systems,” Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2008, 130, 14883-14890.

  • J. Dahl and N.S. Mills, “Antiaromatic Spacer-Bridged Bisfluorenyl Dications Generated by Superacid Induced Ionization”. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2008, 130, 10179-10186.

  • N.S. Mills, “Fluorenylidene and Indenylidene Dications: Insights about Antiaromaticity”, Recent Developments in Carbocation and Onium Ion Chemistry, ACS Symposium Series, Washington, D.C., 2007.

  • N.S. Mills, “Serendipity: How a failed experiment opened up a study of antiaromaticity”, CUR Fellows Award Address, Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 2006, 27, 33-39.



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