Trinity University Professor Receives American Chemical Society Award

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Mar. 19, 2013

Trinity University Professor Receives American Chemical Society Award

Chemist Nancy Mills to be recognized for stellar career in research

Trinity University Professor Receives American Chemical Society Award

By Susie P. Gonzalez

SAN ANTONIO - Trinity University professor Nancy Mills had been working in organic chemistry for about 15 years when she made a mistake, a big one. The compounds she was testing in her lab did not show the results she and other scientists expected, indicating a flaw in her data and possibly in her methodology.

Rather than give in to frustration, she decided to explore the mistake. She turned her research inside out until she realized she had discovered a new group of compounds. Mills says, "The new compound wasn't at all what I intended to find, but I was fortunate."

The new discovery - the fruit of a "fortuitous mistake" - placed her on a new trajectory for studying aromaticity, namely, the field of antiaromaticity. Along the way, she has earned numerous teaching awards in her field and at Trinity and received more than $2 million in research grant funds.

Marinda Wu, Nancy Mills, and Silvia RoncoFor her research persistence and the discoveries that resulted from it, Mills will receive the American Chemical Society's prestigious Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution in April.

Michael Fischer, vice president for Faculty and Student Affairs at Trinity, had high praise for Mills, calling her one of the University's "most deserving faculty members. Nancy combines excellent teaching and extraordinary University service with the outstanding research that this award recognizes. I am delighted to see her get this national recognition."

At the society's conference in New Orleans, she will preside at a symposium in her honor and receive the award at a black tie dinner. She will receive a $5,000 award, and Trinity's chemistry department will receive an additional $5,000 for support of undergraduate research.

Since arriving at Trinity in 1979, Mills has guided more than 200 students in research projects.

One of them is Rahaman "Remu" Navaz Gangji, a senior majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology who hails from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He came to Trinity with an interest in applying to medical school, but after three summers and four semesters in the Mills lab, he changed his mind. He now plans to pursue the MD/PhD track in order to make research an integral part of his career.

"I always had a passion for science, but I had never been exposed to research until Trinity," he said. "I was really grateful to have the opportunity to work with Dr. Mills. Her research is exciting and she's a great professor. She is always enthusiastic about chemistry and science. She really cares about her students, and wants to make sure that we have a firm understanding of the work we're doing and the concepts we're learning."

Calling Mills an "inspiring professor," Navaz Gangji said her passion for organic chemistry and her guidance in the lab and classroom helped him to receive a fellowship as a Beckman Scholar and an honorable mention as a Goldwater Scholar. He added that she instilled in him a confidence to follow his dreams. "If not for her, my Trinity experience would not have been the same."

Mills says it is the students who are inspirational. "They are fearless," she proclaimed, explaining that they will plow through the literature searching for answers and try scientific approaches that other people think are impossible. In the process, discoveries are possible.  She said she could not have advanced her work without the uncompromising scientific inquiry of curious students.

In the 1990s, when she hit a research stumbling block, Mills said it would have been easy to retreat to a comfortable area of chemistry. "There are a lot of pressures for science to keep moving along some track."

Instead, she hunted for an explanation, waiting five years to publish her first paper about the new compounds. She recalls spending a Saturday night writing the manuscript and including data that showed distinct patterns and findings that were clear. "It was like I held a truth in my hands," she says. "The paper wrote itself."

In addition to the American Chemical Society (ACS) award, Mills has been named an ACS Fellow, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Fellow of the Council on Undergraduate Research, and a Piper Professor for the state of Texas. At Trinity, she has been named a Murchison Professor of Chemistry and received a Distinguished Achievement Award for Scholarship and the Z.T. Scott Faculty Fellowship for Teaching and Service.

 She concluded, "Not everybody gets lucky enough to make a big mistake. If everything had gone on as expected, it would have been good, solid science but not as potentially interesting."

Susie P. Gonzalez, assistant director of University Communications, can be reached at