Chemistry,  showing/thinking

showing/thinking: Lilia Harvey

Lilia Harvey is the Charles A. Dana Professor and chair of Chemistry and associate dean for STEM teaching and learning at Agnes Scott. She holds a B.S. from Florida International University and a Ph.D. from Georgia Institute of Technology. Her teaching and scholarly interests include organic chemistry, synthesis and study of photochemically active organic compounds and mechanistic organic chemistry. Below are Professor Harvey’s reflections on her scholarly thinking and process, from the 2019 Dalton Gallery exhibition showing|thinking, a series of exhibitions that highlighted the work of faculty and staff on campus:

Crystallization, a technique used by chemists for the purification and isolation of compounds, is a good metaphor for my approach to creative and professional work. In the process of forming a pure solid in a solution, if the right conditions exist, an initial seed crystal forms that attracts other molecules to its surface. If the geometry of a molecule in solution has a good fit with the growing crystal, it becomes a part of the developing ordered network, eventually leading to a solid structure of pure compound. A recent journal article describes the process as follows:

Crystallization starts from initial densification of the precursors. Subsequent evolution of crystalline order is gradual, involving further densification concurrent with optimization of molecular ordering and morphology.

Isn’t that similar to the process for generating and developing an idea?

I think so. In my scholarly work, a seed of an idea or problem will develop, usually related to a problem I’m trying to solve, a project I’m organizing, or just an issue or situation I find intriguing (or bothersome). I carry this seed idea around for a while, and it “densifies” as I go through life and work, uncovering and making new connections and gathering additional information. Finding or generating the initial idea is exciting, and I enjoy the learning that takes place to further develop it. I’ll revisit and revise, usually as a result of an event or other stimulus that I can relate to the evolving idea.

Ultimately, it’s the sharing of an idea or product that provides the final activation energy or push that drives my creative process. If I am intrigued enough to pursue an idea or care enough about a problem to formulate a solution, then I’m usually motivated to contribute to the collective knowledge by presenting the work at a conference or publishing in a journal. Lee Shulman, former President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, proposed that “for an activity to be designated as scholarship, it should manifest at least three key characteristics: it should be public, susceptible to critical review and evaluation, and accessible for exchange and use by other members of one’s scholarly community.”

I’m a connector and collaborator. My best work always occurs when collaborating with others. My ideas are limited by my knowledge, blind-spots and biases, and collaborators see different aspects of a problem and bring different skills to its solution. Problem-solving is always “better together” since most problems are complex and solving them is arduous. Thought partners are the way to go; they provide different ideas, tools, and ways to connect the dots.

As a way to organize my fledgling ideas, I need to draw and map and illustrate whatever I’m working on. I always carry a notebook to take notes at meetings and keep a small notebook in my purse or backpack. I draw on paper tablecloth covers during meals with friends, family or colleagues (and they all join in eventually). When my daughter was in school, she would draw graphs in my notebooks to rank her favorite classes and teachers and we would look for patterns. She’s in college now and we’ve moved on to other topics, but the notebooks still get used to illustrate and order and plan. For me, there is a strong connection between the process of drawing, mapping and writing and idea development and problem-solving.

I apply the processes and ways of working described above to scholarship in my field, and also to teaching and other college work. This is a natural outcome of our liberal arts environment, where breadth of knowledge, tools and experiences are valued. Over the course of my (almost) twenty-five years at the college, I have worked on problems in my field (organic chemistry), projects to improve teaching and learning, assessment of student learning, strategies for helping students learn both content and process skills, and developing more interesting and effective experiments for research- based labs.

I’m fortunate to be in a profession and work environment that values and rewards creativity and innovation. Every day I work closely with other scientists who shape my scholarship and teaching. I also work with artists, economists, historians and philosophers who teach and inspire with the approaches and tools they bring to our collective work. They are often the source of the seed idea that gradually develops into my next project or product.