In memoriam: Maggie Geselbracht

MaggieReed College lost a cherished colleague and great friend when Maggie Geselbracht passed away Thursday, Sept. 11 after a long and hard-fought struggle against lymphoma.

Maggie joined the Reed community in January 1993, delaying her transfer from Wisconsin to Reed by one semester so that she could both extend her post-doc there and stay close to her future husband, Tom Armstrong. Reed owes much to Tom in bringing Maggie to us. A child of Peoria, Illinois and a graduate of Notre Dame, Maggie moved to Berkeley to start graduate school. While there (or, more precisely, while on the top deck of a ferry heading to Alaska) she met Tom, fell in love, and realized she would have a more harmonious marriage if she found employment somewhere along the West Coast, and not in the snow-coated Midwest. As luck would have it, Alan Shusterman wrote to Arthur Ellis, Maggie’s post-doctoral advisor, informing him of our search for an inorganic chemist. The ad was passed to Maggie, and the rest fell into place.

Maggie’s arrival at Reed was significant in many ways. Most importantly, Reed hired an exceptional researcher and a committed educator. Maggie’s training at Berkeley with Angie Stacy and at Wisconsin with Art Ellis had placed her in two settings where the commitment to scholarship was joined with an equally strong commitment to exploring new pedagogies. Maggie arrived at Reed just having published, as co-author with her Ellis lab colleagues, a text that showed how to link materials science to the general chemistry curriculum, the first text of its kind. Of equal significance, Maggie was joining our six-person department as the only female chemist, and ultimately became the first woman ever to be tenured in our department. She took her position as a role model seriously and immediately became a leader in highlighting the achievements of successful female scientists and spurring discussions on issues related to being a woman in a field that has long been dominated by men. It is no accident that 20 years later, our department has graduated two successive classes that are majority women and that Maggie has helped in recruiting two other outstanding women to our faculty.

The most unexpected benefit accompanying Maggie’s arrival was revealed on her first day of teaching, when a tray of Jell-O shots (colored blue and gold to highlight her Cal heritage) arrived by FedEx to celebrate the occasion. At that moment it became clear that Maggie had an important and boisterous “family” of chemists from afar supporting her as she embarked on her independent career. Family is the thing that most clearly characterizes Maggie. Maggie comes from a large family, the baby among six siblings, and had close ties with many of her nieces and nephews. Throughout her time at Reed, the Geselbracht and Armstrong clans have clearly been her emotional bedrock, with annual treks to Keystone and Truckee for family get-togethers, as well as their frequent visits to Portland. Genealogy was a passion, and Maggie reported regularly on her adventures searching for records while on sabbatical in the Oxford in 1999-2000. Despite having a wealth of blood relations, Maggie continued to build new and interlocking elective families throughout her life and her career. Even at Reed, we can point to overlapping circles of people whom Maggie has drawn close –colleagues from across campus, those of us lucky enough to work with her day-to-day in the chemistry building, and her student colleagues who worked most closely with Maggie in the classroom and the laboratory. Another important professional family for her has been the IONiC group, which links inorganic chemists from small and large schools across the country. Maggie was continuously connected via Skype chat with these close friends, and the knowledge she gleaned from those relations spread to her relations on campus. Of course, the most important family that Maggie has built since arriving at Reed is the one she started with Tom. Her sons Kieran and Zach stand at the center of Maggie’s life, and they have connected her in myriad ways to others in the community. As Maggie fought the cancer that reappeared in 2007, we have seen each of these families step forward with their physical and emotional support, fully committed to letting Maggie know how important she is to each of us.

Maggie’s contributions within the chemistry department can never be fully enumerated. Inheriting Tom Dunne’s mantle as our inorganic chemist, Maggie willingly adopted his commitment to an intense work load in the pursuit of spreading her love of inorganic chemistry. Maggie was dedicated to introducing students to her specialty in their second year, and also to providing an upper-level course so students could see the discipline in fuller flower. She developed the second-year course (Chem 212) over the years to include more lab and lecture content while applying a suite of experiments that introduce students to a wide array of topics across the discipline. By plugging both courses into the IONiC/VIPEr network, Maggie’s pedagogical repertoire grew as her own innovations spread. In General Chemistry, Maggie energetically embraced the module approach to teaching and led her partners in that course in creating a first-semester introduction to chemistry that is uniquely effective at acting as an introduction to the discipline for majors and non-majors alike. Chem 101 is Maggie’s vision of why one pursues chemistry, asking students to develop a molecular view of their surroundings by tackling topics drawn from the universe (the composition of stars), the environment (climate change), and our diet (trans-fats) and giving students the theoretical and practical experience to more fully appreciate the natural and human-influenced world. Maggie’s greatest delight was turning humanities majors to chemistry as they discovered a previously untapped enthusiasm for science. Students will know Maggie through this course for many years to come.

As a researcher, Maggie brought numerous Reedies under her wing to explore the wealth of chemistry associated with solid state materials. Her interests upon arrival at Reed centered on high-temperature superconductors, and were initiated in the Samuel Ruben Laboratory for Electrochemistry. Maggie was the first Reed faculty member to be awarded an NSF CAREER grant, supporting her work in layered perovskites containing mixed valence metallic species. Never one to rest on just one idea, Maggie led her students into investigations of solid acids, aerogels, and the SHArK project for photochemical energy conversion. Maggie’s research consistently sought to make practical advancements through a stronger understanding of solids. Students working in Maggie’s lab had the opportunity to see the scientific world more broadly than many of their peers thanks to Maggie’s regular commitment to supporting student presentations at national meetings of the American Chemical Society. Those presentations were typically made within the division of inorganic chemistry, rather than undergraduate research, putting students in the mix with leaders in the field. Reedies would routinely return from these meetings flush with the excitement of having met so-and-so either on the conference floor or in a local bar, flush with the first evidence that they were genuinely part of a national and international community of like-minded scientists. Many of Maggie’s students have pursued chemistry beyond Reed, not surprisingly shining as leaders in both research and pedagogy, and all have benefitted from the first experience of seeing the power of their education to contribute to a world beyond Reed’s walls.

As much as Maggie has done to contribute to chemistry at Reed, she has done so much more to contribute to Reed more broadly, serving on all the major committees, many campus-wide searches and by connecting formally and informally with colleagues across departments and divisions. She frequently reached out to junior colleagues, just to “check in.” She was a strong advocate for strengthening Reed’s commitment to the family life of its employees, for international studies and for support of faculty teaching methodologies.

Despite her commitment to her career, and her enormous achievements in it, Maggie shone as brightly in her many other passions. A talented pianist, she thrilled at getting an instrument at home, and music was often playing in her office, with Christmas carols often starting in late October. As part of a talented couple in the kitchen, she and Tom introduced many of us to the glories of Cook’s Illustrated and the Silver Palate, while also setting up a store of fine wines that contributed to the quality of those meals. Her birthday cakes for her boys became the stuff of legend, as it seemed that each one was intended to top the one before. Serious conversation could be had about achieving exactly the right coloring for a fondant to top a Timbers-themed cake and upon the architectural potential of doughnuts. She became a committed geo-cacher, using any spare moment to track down a new cache with her much-loved dogs, first Bailey and then Cassie. Maggie also left a great creative legacy. She was an exceptional quilter and illustrated many of the challenges and triumphs of her fight with cancer through her work. Maggie’s love of quilting was vital to her creative and open spirit. Her beautiful work is a treasure for all who see it. A clear color pallet ran through much of the work and the skill and craft in the work was, like everything she did, superb.

Maggie didn’t ever seem to do things the easy way; she did things the way she thought they should be done. When she had 150 Chem 101 exams to grade, she still wrote a three hour exam, with problems, with partial credit, and with a very careful reading of the answers. Even if it took her most of break to grade. When she went on sabbatical to work with Dermot O’Hare at Oxford for a year, her whole family went with her, and gave birth to Kieran there in March 2000. (Notably, Zach was born during her junior sabbatical – Maggie was a planner.) She took the whole family to DC in 2006-7, to work on battery materials with Debra Rolison at the Naval Research Laboratory. It wasn’t easy; aspects of it were intimidating, sometimes she wanted to (and did) cry, but she picked up and did it, and even though things could be scary or tough, she plowed through those challenges. Just like the way she fought her illness: never the easy path, but always the path that she thought was best for her family, her science, her work, her life. Mostly, she was a generous, glorious, tough, smart person who gave gifts of spirit and love to all those around her. She raised two level-headed, kind, handsome, wonderful young men. She inspired thousands of students. She made all of her colleagues, friends, and family a bit better than they would otherwise be.

Maggie’s passing comes unhappily almost exactly one year past her last classroom appearance, in which she fittingly delivered one of her favorite lectures, asking Chem 101 students to think about how an electron, with its particle-like qualities, is capable of crossing boundaries where there is no probability of its existence. She loved the conundrum of it – the sheer strangeness of a natural world that we tend to take for granted as being predictable and rational. It’s at moments like these, when we lose a close and dear friend too soon, that we feel the capriciousness of nature. But as Maggie would remind us, it’s a chance to dig deeper and learn more. Reed has lost one of its great treasures, but we are far from having lost the gifts she gave us. Maggie’s energy, her enthusiasm, and her ever-present smile will live in our memories and her contributions to the pursuit of chemistry will live in our curriculum for many, many years to come.

A Funeral Mass will be held 10 am Saturday Oct. 25 at Holy Family Church followed by coffee and doughnuts in Celebration Hall. A memorial service and reception will be held at Reed College on Sunday, Nov. 16, details forthcoming.

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