Q&A with Incoming Department Chair, Professor Robert McMahon

Professor Robert McMahon
Professor Robert McMahon

On July 1, Professor James Weisshaar passed the department chair title to Professor Robert McMahon. Having completed his 3-year term, Weisshaar returns to the faculty with a renewed focus on his research and teaching roles.

As he prepared for the transition, McMahon took a moment to reflect on his experience in the department, the role of the chair, and the priorities that lie ahead. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Q: When did you join the department?

RM: I arrived here in the summer of 1988, about 25 years ago. I would have gone anywhere in the country so long as it was the best job, and this was the best job — no question about it. I was really excited about the chance to join this distinguished faculty.

Q: What did you think of Madison the first time you visited?

RM: My interview was was just a few weeks before the holidays, and there was a blizzard with thunder snow. The university was officially closed on the second day of my visit, and of course the university doesn’t close very often. I gave my research presentation on that second day, and most of the faculty made it in. We had to head over to State Street for lunch, and we ended up going to lunch at State Street Brats, because it was one of the few places that were open.

Q: What was your impression of the department then?

RM: My impression was that the department was scientifically top-notch, and that there were very good personal interactions among the faculty. And this was confirmed as I came here. The honesty and the social interaction remain strong points today.

Q: How has the science changed since you’ve been here?

RM: The science has become more interdisciplinary. The historic boundaries and delineations of the traditional divisions are much blurrier now. We see this in our graduate program, where we now have the materials chemistry path and the chemical biology path in addition to the traditional paths. And even the traditional paths are much blurrier. There are many more collaborative initiatives in the department, and the faculty is engaged with collaborations either across the department or across departments.

Q: How would you describe the role of the chair in the department today?

RM: In our department, the chair is the chief consensus builder. The chair relies on the advice of all colleagues, funneled through the Finance Committee, to evolve the course of events or to respond to events.

Q: What do you hope to help accomplish during your tenure as chair?

RM: You can’t do everything. You have to have a sense of where you might be able to make a difference and accomplish something. For me, those areas are the Chemistry Building Project, ramping up our alumni relations and development efforts, faculty hiring, and lab safety. When we’re able to move forward with the building project, it will enable so many other things — instruction, research, faculty recruitment, and modern safety practices.

Q: What advice have you received from the previous chairs?

RM: I don’t think anyone’s really given me any advice. I’ve had many encouraging and supportive comments from the former chairs and my other colleagues in the department. And maybe that’s a reflection of the collegial and cooperative way we operate — no one has tried to tell me exactly what to do.