Caltech friends and alumni celebrating Harden McConnell's birthday

New Endowed Lectureship Honors a Beloved Mentor

In spring 1959, a student from another research lab inadvertently destroyed a critical part of graduate student Alvin Kwiram’s experiment. The work had just reached the data collection stage after months of development. This devastating incident prompted Kwiram to rethink his career choice.

“I decided at that point that research might not be the right path for me,” Kwiram says.

But when Kwiram went to his adviser, Professor Harden McConnell (PhD ’51), to suggest this, the response was not what he expected. “He just brushed aside my comment and outlined an even more demanding experiment,” Kwiram remembers.

Much later, after Kwiram (PhD ’63) had become a chemistry professor himself—first at Harvard and then at the University of Washington—he asked McConnell why the eminent scientist had given an unproven, first-year graduate student that second option.

“Harden was not one to make big pronouncements,” Kwiram says. “He simply said, ‘You underestimate yourself.’ What a powerful way of reassuring an anxious student!”

Caltech professor Harden McConnell
Harden McConnell, 1962 (photo courtesy of the Caltech Archives)

McConnell would intervene many more times, often behind the scenes, in Kwiram’s life. “Harden’s scientific stature needs no confirmation from me, but his deep commitment to the welfare of his students was no less formidable,” Kwiram says.

McConnell, widely recognized as one of the leading physical and biophysical chemists of his generation, died in 2014 at the age of 87. To honor his memory and his many scientific contributions, Kwiram and other former students, together with research associates, colleagues, and family members, have established the Harden M. McConnell Lectureship at Caltech. To date, they have raised some $132,000 toward the endowment.

The first lecture will be given by Nobel Prize winner William E. Moerner on April 24, 2018, at Caltech. Another donor to the fund—Sunney Chan, an honorary Caltech alumnus and former master of student houses who today is the George Grant Hoag Professor of Biophysical Chemistry, Emeritus—will present opening remarks. Chan credits McConnell for dramatically altering the course of his career by encouraging him to come to Caltech in the early 1960s.

“Harden McConnell was a remarkable scientist,” says Jackie Barton, Caltech’s John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry and holder of the Norman Davidson Leadership Chair, Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. “His contributions to physical chemistry were extraordinary, and much of his work and ideas are still practiced today.”

 

“This lectureship is a fitting way to honor [McConnell] and to celebrate Caltech’s great legacy of research and teaching in chemistry. We thank our alumni and friends who wanted to give back for making it possible.”
- Jackie Barton

A Lasting Influence

Gerry Liebling (PhD ’65), another former student of McConnell’s, helped get the lectureship off the ground by securing a matching gift for his contribution from his former employer, General Electric. “Gerry stepped forward when it was most needed,” says Hayes Griffith (PhD ’65), who worked with Kwiram to establish the lectureship.

Liebling credits much of his professional success to McConnell and still remembers his former mentor with fondness and gratitude. “His guidance helped me get through Caltech and earn the degree that got me to where I am today,” Liebling says.

Liebling’s work after Caltech took him into scientific areas far removed from those he studied under McConnell, but the habits and lessons he picked up from his mentor served him well throughout his career.

“The inquisitiveness, the probing—‘Why does this work, and what can I do to make it better?’—I got a lot of that from Harden,” Liebling says. “So even when I wasn’t doing anything related to my thesis work, I still felt that I had his spirit in me.”

McConnell’s widow, Sophia McConnell, and daughter, Jane McConnell, also made a generous contribution to the endowment. “Sophia said she had a special place in her heart for Caltech and missed all the friends she made there,” Griffith says.

The Caltech lectureship parallels a lectureship established in 2016 in the Chemistry Department of Stanford University, where McConnell spent the final years of his academic career.

No Pressure

McConnell received his PhD from Caltech in 1951, working under the guidance of Professor Norman Davidson. After stints as a postdoc at the University of Chicago and as a researcher at Shell Oil Company, in 1956 McConnell returned as an assistant professor to Caltech, where he remained until 1964, when he moved to Stanford.

At Caltech, McConnell collaborated with John D. (“Jack”) Roberts and others to help lay the groundwork for nuclear magnetic resonance and electron spin resonance. He also published a series of results that became known as the “McConnell Equation,” providing insights into the origins of spin interactions between unpaired electrons and nuclei in molecules.

Working across theory and experiment, McConnell contributed to diverse areas ranging from magnetic resonance to cell membrane biophysics and immunology. Among many other honors, he received the Welch Award in Chemistry in 2002, the National Medal of Science in 1989, and the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1984; he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965.

McConnell’s students and colleagues remember his intense focus, his uncanny ability to see to the heart of a scientific problem, and his penchant for asking probing questions. “He slept, ate, and imbibed science,” Kwiram says.

At times, Griffith recalls, their mentor could be a little too focused on work. Griffith remembers instances when McConnell would check in on an experiment before leaving the lab, only to call from home a short while later to see if there had been any progress. “No pressure!” says Griffith, now a professor emeritus of biophysical chemistry and molecular biology at the University of Oregon.

“Harden was someone who just radiated energy,” he adds with a laugh. “It was like stepping into a storm. He tired us all out.”

Inspiring the Future

In addition to bringing new ideas to Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Griffith believes the McConnell Lectureship will inspire future generations of students and faculty. “It keeps Harden’s memory alive,” he says, “and it’s also saying indirectly to everyone in attendance that they, too, can do very important things.”

Kwiram, Griffith, and Liebling hope the McConnell Lectureship will encourage gifts from more alumni who want to honor a valued mentor and support Break Through: The Caltech Campaign. “Getting members of research groups involved, together with family and friends, allows participants to contribute what they feel is reasonable and doable for them and makes it possible to achieve the endowment threshold required for the kind of outcome we are celebrating,” Kwiram says.

For more information about Caltech’s Harden M. McConnell Lectureship, visit http://www.cce.caltech.edu/content/mcconnell.