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NSF Career Award-wininer enjoys
combining research, teaching
March 30, 1998

About four years ago, Amy Howell was living the type of life many researchers crave. A researcher in medicinal chemistry for Glaxo at one of the company's facilities in England, she was involved in work at the absolute forefront of her specialty and earning a good living. She also enjoyed living in England.

Yet Howell felt a gap in her industry job, one that she knew she could only fill by returning to academia.

"I missed teaching," she says. "I love to teach. I love to create an environment that gets people excited about learning."

Howell's love of teaching became Glaxo's loss but UConn's gain. Since her arrival here in fall 1994, Howell, an assistant professor of chemistry, has worked to integrate her industry experience into her classroom instruction and laboratory work. She also has created special workshops for chemistry students from the University and other colleges in the region to help them become more competitive when applying for industry jobs.

One might expect that Howell's increased focus on teaching diminished her research activities. But in fact, her research has remained on the cutting edge. Last year she was a recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award of more than $283,000, one of five UConn faculty to receive an NSF Career Award in 1997. Criteria for the award include both research and teaching.

"I know some researchers think that teaching can be a chore, the price of working at a University," Howell says. "But I really see it as a benefit. At least for me, one really complements the other."

Roots in teaching Though many faculty researchers were first drawn into teaching as part of their graduate studies - either providing undergraduate instruction in the classroom or presiding over labs - Howell took a different route. After finishing her undergraduate degree at Wheaton College, Ill., she taught high school math and chemistry for three years, first at a Navajo school in New Mexico and then in Liberia. She enjoyed teaching, but her desire to further her own education, specifically in chemistry, sent her back to college.

She earned her Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Kentucky and held post-doctoral positions at Northwestern and the University of Nottingham in England. Soon, Howell was hired by Glaxo, a multinational pharmaceutical company, where she worked for three years in the field of drug discovery. The research was exciting, and Howell enjoyed the challenges her work presented. But she felt the pull to resume teaching and applied for a position at UConn.

"UConn had everything I was looking for," she says. "I felt like I could continue with my research here. It had a good atmosphere and good students."

Once here, however, Howell realized that chemistry students could benefit from some extra preparation for the job market.

"Their knowledge in chemistry was strong, but they really didn't have any idea of realities or expectations they would face in industry jobs," she says. "When I was in England, many doctoral students there spent three months of their studies working in industry. It gave them tremendous advantages when it came time to look for a job."

Hoping to give UConn students similar opportunities, Howell began incorporating lessons from her industry experience into teaching and laboratory instruction for both graduate and undergraduate students.

"This isn't limited to my graduate students," she says. "I generally teach undergraduate classes and have three undergraduates working in my lab each semester doing research."

Howell also worked with the Connecticut Valley section of the American Chemical Society to create workshops designed to help students market themselves more efficiently to industry. The workshops have drawn students from more than 25 Universities and colleges around New England. It was the creation of these workshops, in part, which led to Howell receiving her Career Award from NSF.

As for her research, Howell and her group are currently working in organic synthesis. In particular they are interested in a class of strained molecules that have the potential to offer synthetic replacements for such products as anti-obesity drugs, cholesterol-lowering agents and antibiotics. She has also begun to examine similar structures that may lead to the creation of advanced materials. This has led her to initiate discussion with colleagues in the University's Institute of Materials Science about possible partnerships or collaborations.

"It's all very exciting," she says. "And I think I bring that excitement to the classroom and the lab with me. I think my students see that."

David Pesci