Staff Profile: Leah McEwen

01/10/17

Who she is: Leah McEwen, chemistry librarian.

What she does: I help faculty, students and staff with chemistry research. I decide which chemistry journals, books, databases or even multimedia the library should acquire or get access to. I’ve taught full-credit courses, I’ve led workshops on specific topics, and I teach class sessions on particular topics by request. I help people with what’s called chemical structure searching. Chemists communicate and organize all of their literature by their own language, and it’s a graphic language of molecular structures. Chemistry librarians use this language to teach chemistry students how to navigate the literature, work with chemistry journals and databases to improve searching, and index chemical data and safety information.

The literature is huge –well over 1 million records are published each year, and the literature has been collected in chemistry for more than 200 years – so there are something like 100 million chemical compounds to search. Part of what I find fun about it is coming up with creative ways to do searches.

Lately I’ve also been involved in a national collaboration about chemical safety information, as well as working with local safety officers here at Cornell. And I was so honored to receive the 2016 American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Information Val Metanomski Meritorious Service Award. It means a lot to me to be a part of that community.

Why it’s important: Anyone who wants to make a compound as part of their research needs to know how to search the literature, and this impacts so many disciplines on campus: Chemistry, materials science, fiber science. People at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva who are analyzing pesticides, researchers at the Boyce Thompson Institute who are isolating chemical compounds from plants and want to compare them to known compounds, labs at Weill Cornell… It’s really cross-disciplinary.

Where she’s from: Ithaca.

Background: My background is nutritional biochemistry, where I used the molecular structure language in researching food nutrition and safety. I always wanted to be a scientist and that’s what I studied for, but when I got a job at Utah State University, I realized I didn’t want to work in a lab anymore, I didn’t want to spend all my time in one place. My mother was a librarian, and when I was doing my master’s degree at Cornell I actually worked at Mann Library and I really enjoyed that, and the librarians there at the time encouraged me to consider library school. At Utah State, they were opening a science library on campus, so I got to be a part of that. And that’s when I started learning how to do chemical searching for students and researchers.

Education: I got my bachelor’s at Hampshire College. I have a master’s in nutrition from Cornell, and a master’s in library science from Emporia State University in Kansas.

How long at Cornell: I’ve been a librarian here for 17 years.  But because my father worked at Cornell, and because of my graduate studies here, I really grew up on campus.

Best part of her job:  Working with so many different kinds of scientists and applications. The chemists themselves, they’re artists in their area, they are so fluent in all these ideas, they’re inspiring to me. The caliber of research that happens here is incredible. It’s so amazing to be involved in research by Nobel laureates and to support education here at Cornell.

In her spare time: I love to garden, and in the winter I spend a lot of time looking at bulb catalogs. I also read a lot, particularly social history or women’s technology, like lacemaking.