The Benchmark: 7 Questions for Prof. Xavier Creary

Author: Rebecca Hicks

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In this issue, we feature 7 questions for Professor Xavier Creary.

Biography:

Xavier Creary, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, received his B.S. from Seton Hall University in 1968 and his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University in 1973. After a year as a postdoctoral fellow with J.F. Bunnett at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he joined the faculty at Notre Dame in 1974. Professor Creary’s research interests are a blend of synthetic and mechanistic organic chemistry directed toward the study of novel reaction mechanisms and reactive intermediates.

  1. When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist, and what led you to mechanistic organic chemistry?

When I was in grade school, around the 6th or 7th grade, I liked to mix things together in the kitchen and see what would happen. I had a Gilbert chemistry set, which would probably be considered dangerous now, but they were popular then. Also, my older brother liked to make gun powder and watch things explode, and I was fascinated by it. I have always been interested in why and how things work.

The instructor who taught my first organic chemistry course was an organic chemist who was interested in reaction mechanisms. He encouraged students to go on to graduate school and talked about important organic chemists at different schools that would arise during class, so certainly the influence of teachers led me to organic chemistry. Also, organic chemistry answers the questions of why something occurs and how things are involved – organic makes sense.

  1. What are the biggest challenges you face in your research?

The biggest challenge we face is making the molecules that we need for the mechanistic studies. I work with substituted cations, carbocations and carbenes, which are not always straightforward to synthesize. While many synthetic organic chemists work to assemble large, complicated molecules, our challenge is making small molecules that are not easily put together. The synthesis, for example adding a carbon label in a specific location, can take many months to years, but the mechanistic study using the molecule can be completed in a few days.

  1. You are one of the most highly rated chemistry professors at ND. What is your secret to teaching and inspiring students?

Students always appreciate when you are prepared for class. They see if you are “winging it” or if you are well-prepared. Also, students are inspired by enthusiasm; if you’re not excited, how can you expect the students to be excited? I think it’s easy to be excited about organic chemistry, and the students pick up on that. Students also appreciate instructors being available outside of class to answer questions and to work problems.

I hear you are known for using a lot of colored chalk. Is that also a secret to success?

The chalk keeps their interest and keeps them alert. I always hear multi-colored pens clicking whenever I change colors on the board. So, chalk is of some importance. It’s also important to teach to the whole class and keep everyone’s interest, which can be a challenge in a large class. You can’t talk over or under their heads. At the end of the semester, if you get some comments saying the class was way over the student’s head, some comments saying it was just right, and some comments saying the class was a little slow, you know you have hit a good balance.

  1. What is your proudest accomplishment?

There are many papers that I am proud of, but I am also proud of the fact that I still carry out lab experiments myself, and that I have maintained my experimental skills. I can still make, purify, and characterize compounds, and I can still operate all of the NMR spectrometers. I am also proud that I can still hit a softball well. Our Chemistry Department softball team has won the University RecSports league for the past two years running.

  1. What advice do you have for young alumni for navigating a long and successful career?

The typical advice is to go to graduate school, but really, I think it is most important to follow what you want to do. Do what you are interested in doing whether it’s research or teaching or something else.

  1. If you could have dinner with any 3 people, living or dead, who would it be and why?

So let me pick people from different areas. For a chemist, I would pick Emil Fischer. He was one of the greatest organic chemists ever, particularly considering the time and resources available to him at that time. Next would be Babe Ruth. He was the greatest sports player on the greatest team ever, the New York Yankees, who were my first sports team. Lastly, I would pick Abe Lincoln. Last year I visited Springfield, and this year I visited Gettysburg. Without the events during Lincoln’s presidency, the world might have developed quite differently.

  1. What do you do to relax?

I play softball, and I am an avid sports fan. I love Notre Dame football and basketball. I also love baseball, and my wife and I have visited almost every major league baseball park in the country (as well as Toronto). We have three cities left to visit and hope to complete our visits next year.