Christopher Cahill | Chemist Profiles
Chris Cahill's chemistry career started out as a backup plan, after he discovered that his "hot-shot" status in the high school band was insufficient preparation for success as a professional musician. When his assigned advisor—a chemistry professor—at the State University of New York (SUNY) Fredonia suggested adding some general science-track courses to his schedule, Cahill agreed. By the time he graduated, he had developed an interest in natural systems, especially minerals, and he obtained a dual bachelor's degree in geochemistry and chemistry.
Cahill went directly to graduate school at Arizona State University, but the only chemistry faculty member who was doing crystallography at the time was focused on theoretical research. Cahill soon realized that he needed to find a mentor with a stronger emphasis on experimental crystallography. He had done an REU (research experience for undergraduates) at SUNY Stony Brook, and he applied and was accepted for a graduate program there, working on natural and synthetic sulfides. "It's best to leave if it isn’t a good fit," he said, referring to his decision to re-start his graduate career. The years at Stony Brook were "five of the happiest years of my life."
During a visit to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab, the X-ray diffractometer that he was using to collect data malfunctioned. While he was waiting for repairs to be completed, he struck up a conversation with Professor Peter Burns from the University of Notre Dame, who was also there to use the instrument. That conversation eventually led to a one-year postdoc at Notre Dame, where Cahill did research on the structures of uranium-containing minerals in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences. "Timing is everything," said Cahill. "You have to embrace every opportunity."
During his postdoctoral year, Cahill kept a close watch on the job ads in Chemical and Engineering News. He saw a flurry of postings for academic positions, and he applied for about 15 different positions. "I didn't realize at the time that all universities post their ads for new faculty members at the same time every year. This looked like a golden opportunity to me, and I jumped on it. Subconsciously, I think I wanted an academic career."
What is your major responsibility in your current position?
I teach classes in general chemistry and nuclear materials. I also direct a research group that at present includes graduate and undergraduate students, as well as two high school students. I serve on various steering committees, including one that is helping to design a new science and engineering facility here at GW. I serve on committees that address funding issues, evaluate the curriculum, and make decisions on faculty promotions and tenure. It's what the university needs to keep the machine going.
What's a typical day on the job like?
My work day varies, depending on my class and meeting schedules. On average, I spend about 15% of my time on teaching. Meetings take another 20%, and service and committee work for the university and my scientific community takes about 20% of my time. I spend about 20% of my time working with grad students, which includes editing manuscripts for publication as well as overseeing their research. About 10% of my time is spent helping my undergrad and high school students. The remaining 15% of my time is spent pursuing funding and managing my existing funding.
I spend a few days each month traveling to conferences, visiting research collaborators at other universities and lab facilities, and attending project reviews and other meetings required by my funding sources. Meetings at the national laboratories are useful for finding new sources of funding and for maintaining professional contacts.
I generally work 45–50 hours a week. The atmosphere here is fairly relaxed.
Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?
My research group focuses very strongly on characterizing solid-state compounds using X-ray diffraction. We use X-ray diffractometers in my lab as well as luminescence instrumentation to study structure–property relationships within our materials.
We use Mac computers and CrystalMaker software to process and analyze our data and to visualize the results. We also make daily use of the Cambridge Structural Database (CSD) and the Inorganic Crystal Structure Database (ICSD).
What is your work environment like?
I spend almost all of my time in my private office, which has ample room for meetings and student interaction, multiple computers, and whiteboards.
What do you like most about your job?
I have a flexible schedule and diverse duties.
What is your best productivity trick?
Going to the office early on Sunday mornings or late on Saturday nights!
What's the best career advice you've received?
"You will always outlast an administrator." My PhD advisor told me this when a new administrator was doing some major restructuring that was hurting our department. If you can hang in there during the hard times, and have a diverse portfolio of activities, you can keep from going crazy and eventually things will get better again.
What advice would you give someone just starting out?
You don't have to be a genius to succeed in science. Communication skills will help you find resources and opportunities. Attention to detail will help you produce solid research results and build a reputation as someone worth paying attention to.
If you're looking at a hybrid career, like science policy, it's best to get a good foundation in lab research first. On an academic track, a strong research program gives you credibility, and you can point to your accomplishments.
What personal talent or trait makes you a great fit for your job?
Communication skills and attention to scientific details.
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?
Exercise. It's great for mental clarity, reducing stress, and general well-being. I have a toddler at home, which is one source of exercise!
How have you benefited from being an ACS member?
Chemical & Engineering News. I look at the Newscripts and business sections to see what's going on outside my daily surroundings, and I check the job ads to see the trends in what companies and universities are offering. My group also uses SciFinder on a daily basis.
If you're looking at a hybrid career, like science policy, it's best to get a good foundation in lab research first."