Elements of Fun
Love of research keeps fire burning for chemistry professor Jean'ne Shreeve
By Tara Roberts
Originally published in Here We Have Idaho Summer 2013 issue
The best of chemist Jean'ne Shreeve's days can be summed in a word: fun.
Shreeve has designed rocket fuels, experimented with the most reactive element on Earth and taught hundreds of students during her 53 years with the University of Idaho Department of Chemistry. She's legendary for toiling in her lab at all hours of the day and night conducting her research.
"My feeling is we only do things because it's fun," says Shreeve, one of just a handful of University Distinguished Professors.
The delight Shreeve takes in her research is one reason for her longevity at the university. She also credits the boss who hired her in 1961 and visited with her daily, even years after his retirement: Malcolm Renfrew, professor emeritus of chemistry.
For decades, Renfrew would stop by Shreeve's office every day to ask, "What have you done since yesterday?"
"I had the world's best boss," she says.
Shreeve arrived at UI for a one-semester appointment. When a faculty position opened, Renfrew offered and Shreeve accepted.
Shreeve says Renfrew's connections helped launch her in the chemistry world, and his support made her research possible. When she approached him with new ideas, he always encouraged her enthusiastically. "Just because it hadn't been done before — why couldn't it be done? Why couldn't we do it here?," she'd ask rhetorically.
The chemistry program of Shreeve's early years was larger than it is now, though much less technologically advanced. When she first came to campus, the department had only one tool — an unreliable infrared spectrometer.
Shreeve drove every weekend to the University of Washington in Seattle, where she'd received her doctorate, to use other equipment.
Shreeve chaired the chemistry department for 14 years after Renfrew's retirement and served as the university's vice president for research for 12 years. She sat on the board of directors for the American Chemical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science, and spent more than 25 years as Idaho's project director for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR. She remains involved with EPSCoR and speaks about her research around the world.
She's kept her lab running all the while, producing more than 500 publications. She's been known to spend up to 80 hours a week on her research.
"I never left research," Shreeve says. "I never left. It was just natural to come back to it full time."
For much of her career, Shreeve's research focused on synthesizing compounds with fluorine, an extremely reactive element that can be used in rocket fuel oxidizers.
While her heart still lies with fluorine, she's shifted focus in recent years. Her interest in energetic materials — substances that contain high levels of stored chemical energy — was sparked when she learned of the subject as a member of a National Research Council committee.
"I thought to myself, 'This is fun. We can do that. Let's give it a try,' " Shreeve says.
One of her lab's projects is creating antibioagent materials. If the military were to attack a biological weapons storage facility, for example, a traditional bomb would leave dangerous residue undestroyed. Shreeve and her team are developing iodine-based materials that can be packaged with bombs to destroy any residual biological agents such as viruses and spores.
Another recent project involves designing rocket fuels that react vigorously with oxidizers, eliminating the need for a starter. Shreeve's team has been creating and testing these hypergolic fluids to determine which react with oxidizers in no more than five milliseconds.
The team uses a high-speed camera to record the time from the moment the substances meet to the moment they burst into flames of yellow, blue or green.
"It adds a little color to our life," Shreeve says with a smile. "Chemistry is all exciting, but it's a little bit spectacular when we get those flames."
Creating such useful and volatile substances is exhilarating for Shreeve because researchers must balance a compound's valuable properties with its less-desirable side effects.
"It is a constant battle, if you will, with Mother Nature," she says. "A lot of our work is designing these materials and thinking about them and trying to guess their properties before we go into the lab and make them."
Shreeve is never alone in her battle. More than 200 graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and visiting faculty have passed through her lab. She calls them all "co-workers."
"These kids are bright, they're fun, they're enthusiastic. They have great ideas and they want to try those ideas," she says. "I always have a lot of fun, and I hope that most of my co-workers are having almost as much fun as I am."
As dedicated as Shreeve is to her research, she maintains that the university's top priority must be education — through hands-on learning in the laboratory. She says the most rewarding part of her job is seeing students who lack confidence and knowledge blossom in her lab, then move on to their own projects and independent careers.
Shreeve keeps in contact with most of her students, who now live and work around the world.
"That sad thing is a lot of them are retiring," she says laughing. "I don't know why."
Shreeve makes no mention of retirement plans, and continues to spend her days — and evenings — experimenting alongside her younger co-workers. Shreeve doesn't work as late as she used to, but she recalls previous years of socializing with her co-workers until midnight. After everyone else drifted home, Shreeve would make a beeline back to her lab.
"If I had my druthers, I would always work graveyard," she says. "Graveyard is so nice because it's so quiet. The phones aren't ringing and the emails have stopped."
But at 5 p.m. every day, she leaves Renfrew Hall to visit the man it's named for. Malcolm Renfrew will soon be 103 years old, and he's no longer able to visit Shreeve in her office.
"I just sit with him while he eats supper, see what he's been up to," she says.
He's finally stopped asking his daily question, she says with a laugh. "I think he's decided I'm so hopeless he just doesn't bother anymore."
That, or he already knows the answer. Jean'ne Shreeve has been having fun.