Bryn Mawr’s Endowed Lecture Series continues at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 28, in Park Science Rm 180, when Frank B. Mallory Professor of Chemistry Michelle Francl talks about “Making Molecular Monsters.”
It’s fitting that Francl is the first faculty member to hold the Frank B. Mallory Professorship. Like her friend for whom it’s named, and who passed away in 2017, Francl is both a world-class researcher and deeply invested in the Bryn Mawr Community.
“Few people realize the amazing significance of Michelle’s computational chemistry scholarship and, over the past decade, she’s made an equally impressive transition to writing important and highly read pieces in the popular science arena,” says her colleague, Professor of Chemistry Bill Malachowski. “In the classroom, she’s a tremendously talented instructor who’s fostered the development of thousands of Bryn Mawr students in the sciences and medicine.”
After they both earned doctorates at U.C. Irvine, Francl and her husband at the time, Tom Francl, moved to the East Coast in 1983 when they both found work in the Princeton area, for Michelle a post-doctoral position at Princeton and for Tom a position at American Cyanamid nearby.
Soon after, a one-year position at Haverford, complete with a coveted computer for the computational chemist, became available. After arriving at Haverford, a tenure-track position opened up at Bryn Mawr.
“I put all my eggs in this basket, because it was the only opening in my field, and I got the job,” recalls Francl. “So in the summer of 1986, Frank Mallory moved the dead pigeon and the old tire out of a room in Park that’s no longer there that another professor was using for storage, and welcomed me to Bryn Mawr. Frank was the department chair and he went in and cleaned that space out with his own two hands, I’ll always remember that.”
It was the first of many acts of kindness and friendship the colleagues would share.
“Tragically, at the end of the year, Tom had a ruptured aortic aneurysm and was rushed to Bryn Mawr hospital. Frank and his wife Sally spent the night at the hospital with me. Tom died the next day. [Then Bryn Mawr President] Pat McPherson helped us sort through all the arrangements and Frank and Sally put up my parents, and the College could not have been more supportive.”
Devastated, Francl considered moving back to California to be with family but ultimately decided to stay at Bryn Mawr and with the support of the Mallorys and others built a life here. Five years later the college hired Victor Donnay in the math department. The couple has now been married for 26 years and have raised two sons ages 22 and 24.
“In so many ways, Bryn Mawr and in particular the chemistry department has been like a family. I feel like my colleagues are there to support each other and to see that our students flourish. An old friend used to jokingly ask after my sons and ‘the daughters’—meaning all my Bryn Mawr students.”
Another source of strength for Francl over the years has been something she’s not inclined to share with students but is known to friends and colleagues, her Catholic faith.
“I grew up both culturally and intellectually Catholic,” says Francl. “I grew up in a family where Catholicism was intellectually engaged with. It wasn’t just—here are the rules and you follow them. We talked about—what was the history, what are the rules, how do you follow them, what’s changing, what’s not.”
In recent years, Francl’s interests in science and faith have come together through her writing for various publications including her blog Quantum Theology and most recently through her being named an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory. At the Observatory, Francl has been writing about issues at the intersections of faith and science, from both a historical and philosophical perspective. She’s introduced some of the techniques she has learned at the Observatory for studying the chemical and physical properties of meteorites to Bryn Mawr’s chemistry curriculum.
One thing related to Francl’s faith has made it into the classroom. For as long as she can remember in her adult life, except for a few years when her children were young, Francl has spent a portion of time each year, usually about eight days, and as long as 30 days, in silence.
“The world is a noisy place and for me it’s always been worthwhile to take time out to think about—‘what am I doing’ ‘why am I doing it’ ‘who is it effecting’ and in what way.”
Francl has also become a leading voice against the pseudo science espoused by some in which the world is divided between the good and natural and the evil and manmade. She has written about and been quoted on the topic in a number of media outlets including Slate and NPR.
‘You’ll hear people say things like, you shouldn’t take anything a third grader can’t pronounce. But the name doesn’t have any relationship to how dangerous something is. Everything in the world is made up of chemicals. What’s important is to have a basic understanding of chemistry and of the structure of chemicals.”
With all of her interests, one of the greatest joys in Francl’s life remains working with Bryn Mawr’s students.
“I’ve now taught students for three decades and still nothing makes me happier than to watch them become fully themselves, not only in class or research, but after they graduate. I tell them that if they are who they should be, they will set the world on fire. And they do!”