Anne McNeil

FACULTY – Faculty Lead for the Year of Sustainability, Carol A. Fierke Collegiate Professor of Chemistry, & Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry.

I grew up outside of Buffalo, New York. My parents moved to Virginia when I was in high school, and then [I] went to college down there, but when I decided to focus on chemistry and get my PhD, I actually moved back up to New York. Then I just took a chance and went out to Boston to do a postdoc at MIT. And then from there, I was just interviewing for jobs. And I interviewed for a bunch of different places, but Michigan was the second place I interviewed and I fell in love with it, like the minute I got off the airplane, really, because it reminded me a lot of where I grew up.  And I just fell in love with the department here too, the faculty. Michigan’s very unique. There’s so many women faculty in the department here. I don’t know what it is now, but at the time, it was probably like, one or two faculty members in each department at major universities were women and here it was like, eight or ten and it really stood out. I was super excited when they gave me an offer, just really honored and happy, because I saw myself being able to have a career here. I started in 2007, so I’m in my 17th year now.

Back when I interviewed here, I had a proposal—when you interview you have to have like, three proposals—and one of my proposals was on sustainable polymers. I didn’t [get to] follow through on that interest in the beginning when I started my career. My whole pre-tenure, and even early post-tenure, I was itching to move into that area, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted, or where I fit in that community. It really took the right opportunity falling in my lap as a catalyst: One of my senior colleagues left the university, and he left behind the student, and some funding for a project. That was a collaboration with Procter and Gamble, on trying to develop methods to repurpose their waste diapers. And I was super excited about both the student and the project, but I didn’t want to just take over the exact project that he was doing. So I worked with the student and we came up with a new project direction that was still on recycling waste diapers, but doing something a little bit different than what my previous colleague was doing. And so that was my first project on sustainable materials. It was such an amazing, fantastic experience and when I published it, and I talked about it, people responded very positively to it. It makes me feel better, too, because I feel like I’m working on a problem that might actually help society.

And so then it was like this alignment of my own. I’ve been an environmentalist for as long as I can remember. When I was a little kid, I had all these books like ‘how to save the Earth’, ‘50 Ways to Save the Earth,’ and in my family now, I’m a huge environmentalist and a vegetarian. When we get takeout, we bring our own utensils— I’ve always been a very strong environmentalist in my personal life. Then this project was the first time that my chemistry focus was also aligned with that same environmental passion and then it just kind of grew from there. We started other projects, like recycling plastic waste. We have other projects on polyvinyl chloride repurposing. And then we started doing research on microplastics and capturing them and removing them from the environment and detecting them. Basically, it kind of evolved to now, every single one of my projects is tied to environmental sustainability. But if you came to talk to me in 2018, none of my projects would have been. So, over time, I’ve slowly shifted my entire program to focus on that. And at the same time, I started shifting my teaching there too. I can’t remember what year, but around the same time that I was shifting my research, I got asked to teach in the Honors College, and I decided to put together a course called ‘Living in the Anthropocene.’ It takes a science based focus on ‘how are humans impacting the planet?’ Like, what’s the evidence that we’re having an impact on the planet? And so, at one point in time, and still kind of true, my teaching, my research, my personal passion, were all the same thing. And that just made me super, super happy and excited to come to work.

[Like I mentioned before,] I was aware of climate change from an early age. Like late 80s,  when I was in middle school, I was already worried about the planet. But I think having children was another tipping point,  just realizing that you brought this [person] into the world, and you’re gonna give them a place that’s less safe and healthy than when [you were] born. It’s very emotional. [So now] I’ve been trying to raise my kids to be very active and proactive. I recently did the A2Zero training through the city and became an A2Zero Ambassador. I involve my kids in every aspect of that. They came to the ceremony with me. My oldest child is in middle school and helped me on my Ambassador project. We’re helping the city improve their composting and so my oldest child’s helping make a new infographic. She’s right with me doing everything. So I’m trying to empower my children to realize that they can do things to have an impact. And I want to empower the students too, because I feel like every one of your generation and younger, understands what they’re inheriting and is not happy about it. I feel terrible that my generation and past generations have contributed to this. And so as much as possible, I want to empower students, and younger kids to feel like they have the ability to make changes. 

This opportunity with the Year of Sustainability allows me to extend that into my service [here at the University]. Like what can we accomplish [across the college] if we get everybody thinking about it for a whole year, and we kind of entice them with some money, and we do a lot of education. If we get everybody on board, imagine the impact we can make. The year [is] our way of giving people the opportunity to focus on it, and talk about it and do something about it. We want people to feel empowered, and to give them resources to do actionable things. We have a chance to get everyone to move the needle on campus in terms of sustainability, because there are so many fragmented efforts going on around campus.

When we ask people to take actions, I’m a little bit worried that they’re going to do the easiest, or the lowest impact thing, as opposed to focusing on the biggest impact they have on the planet. And this is not a dig on anyone else. It’s kind of like a dig on the situation we find ourselves in, because there isn’t enough information available to people. Like I’m trying to find out for my lab, what is the biggest footprint we have? And it’s not a simple solution. I’ve been asking and a lot of people are thinking about it, and I’m thinking about it, but we still don’t know the answer. Because I would love to make some changes in my lab, but I don’t want to just make changes to make changes, I want to make changes that are gonna make a big difference. And I mean, I will, I’ll make changes that make a small difference. But I’m going to be asking my students to make some sort of sacrifice. Usually, when you make changes, there’s often a sacrifice. Not always, but most of the time, you know, higher costs, or less efficient, or more time spent doing something. And so I think, as we enter this year, I really want people to ask those questions, [to ask] individuals, ‘okay, take a look around you and figure out what’s your biggest impact.’ I want to help them figure that out, because I don’t know that that’s gonna be really obvious to everybody. Then I want to prioritize those projects. And so we’ve already announced these incentives and innovations funds. We’ve got some ideas and things in there, people asking questions, and then I ask questions right back like, ‘Okay, well, how many people will this effect,’ ‘What are the costs and energy costs that go into this new thing,’ and ‘how does that compare to the old thing?’ I want to make sure that when we do make changes, we’re making smart changes that are actually going to have the biggest bang for the buck.

As part of the LSA Year of Sustainability, LSA Dean’s Fellow Cherish Dean sat down with a range of students, staff, and faculty across the University to illustrate the various relationships people across campus already have to this work, to showcase ways people can get involved, and to highlight the reasons that this work should matter.

To view an abbreviated transcript of Cherish’s full conversation with Anne, click here.

Cherish can be reached at To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team as a whole, please contact

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