Reactions – Kristopher McNeill

Kristopher McNeill is in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota, and works on the environmental chemistry of aquatic systems.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I had a crush on a girl in high school and she told me I looked good in a lab coat during a chemistry lab. I wish I were kidding. Prior to that, I had a strong, yet nebulous, interest in all things science-y, especially space travel.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

It’s a sad fact that I am not that good at anything else, but I do enjoy (listening to) music and (engaging in amateur) graphic design. Maybe I would be a music blogger with a swank website and live off ad revenue! I could interview musicians and post their interviews on my blog. Hmm, this is starting to sound a lot like your job.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

My research group is focussed on chemical reactions that occur in aquatic systems. Right now we have projects on the fate of wastewater-derived pharmaceuticals in surface waters (with Prof. Bill Arnold), how sunlight participates in the breakdown of natural organic compounds in estuaries (with Prof. Jim Cotner), remediation of groundwater polluted with chlorinated solvents using metal-based reactions, the environmental chemistry of carbon nanotubes (with Prof. Chris Cramer), and sunlight-mediated inactivation of pathogenic viruses and bacteria (with. Profs. Kara Nelson, Ali Boehm, and Tamar Kohn), among other things! As you can see, we like to collaborate with other research groups. I would argue that most problems in environmental science are just too big for any one research group or one research discipline to tackle — you have to collaborate to make headway. Plus, we have a lot of fun interacting with folks with different expertise.

I’ll tell you about one ongoing project that has captured my interest lately. It involves triclosan, the active ingredient in anti-bacterial handsoap. In the US and Canada, our use of anti-bacterial products results in something like three milligrams of triclosan per person per day being washed down the drain. So, at a wastewater treatment plant that serves a million people, about a metric ton (1000 kg) of triclosan comes to the plant every year. About 10% makes it through the plant as either the parent compound or chlorinated derivatives. Prof. Bill Arnold and I have had a few students over the years looking at what happens when triclosan and the chlorinated triclosan derivatives in the wastewater effluent are exposed to sunlight. Our focus has been on one particular set of troubling reaction products, which are chlorinated dioxins. What we have been working on lately is trying to determine the extent to which triclosan is a significant (or insignificant) source of chlorinated dioxins to the aquatic environment. The work is ongoing, so you will have to check back to see what we find!

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

Rachel Carson. She is arguably the single most important figure in launching the modern environmental movement and my field of study, environmental chemistry. Most people think of her interest in birds, which comes through so strongly in Silent Spring, but her real love was aquatic systems, which is mine as well. I understand that she was not much of a conversationalist, so dinner might be a bad venue. I think I would pack a lunch and arrange for a hike along the coast.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

Last summer, with help from some graduate students, I attempted to measure differences in the steady-state concentration of singlet oxygen in filtered and unfiltered Lake Superior water by following the disappearance of furfuryl alcohol. I didn’t see any differences. The more interesting part of the story is that the experiment was conducted on the top deck of the R/V Blue Heron on a beautiful sunny day in the middle of Lake Superior. Field work is one of the few opportunities that I take advantage of to get my hands dirty doing science. The last molecule that I made by myself from setup to cleanup was probably bis-(trimethylphosphine)zirconocene back when I was a graduate student.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Radiohead’s OK Computer comes to mind as an album that I could stand listening to again and again and again. It is good for intent listening, casual listening, waking, sleeping, running, and setting the mood for my island cocktail parties. Borges’ Labyrinths is the book I would take. It is a collection of his short works that is so dense and so endlessly interesting, it might take being exiled on a desert island to ever really figure it out.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions?

Oliver Sacks always has something interesting to say. He is not a practicing chemist, but he definitely is has a chemist’s soul. I have always enjoyed talking with Carolyn Bertozzi, but realize now that I do not know her music and literature tastes!