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Chemistry Alumni Interview Series: Colleen Kelley

31 August 2022
Colleen Kelley


Colleen Kelley graduated in 1991 with a Ph.D. in chemistry at Penn State. After graduating, she pursued a career in academia that led her to her current teaching position at the University of Arizona. Teaching at the university level inspired her to pursue a new creative outlet through comic books that teach young students about chemistry.


Kathryn: Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry at Penn State? 

Colleen: I chose Penn State Chemistry for my Ph.D. so that I could be a member of Greg Geoffroy’s group. His group was doing research that interested me the most of any of the schools I applied to.  

Kathryn: What facet of chemistry were you most interested in?  

Colleen: I was interested in Organometallic Chemistry because I had done my undergraduate research in that area and really liked the field.  

Kathryn: Was there someone within the chemistry department who had a positive impact on you during your time here?  

Colleen: My thesis/research advisor, Greg Geoffroy, was awesome! We had a great research group! Paul Weiss was also a positive influence on me – he was a member of my Ph.D. committee.  

Kathryn: What resources were most helpful for you when searching for and applying for job opportunities after your time at Penn State?  

Colleen: Ha! This was before the internet! Greg Geoffroy suggested some research labs as a postdoc for me. I followed up with his suggestions by writing / mailing (snail mail!) letters.  

Kathryn: What made you decide on a career in academia? 

Colleen: I wanted to pursue academia because I really like the atmosphere of academia and academic research. I also liked teaching, so that career option provided me the opportunity to teach.  


Colleen Kelley
Kelley (front row, center) with the Geoffroy group circa 1989


Kathryn: In your current teaching appointment at the University of Arizona, what is it like working alongside students who share the same interests as you?  

Colleen: I love it! My graduate and undergraduate students have so much energy and enthusiasm for chemistry. It’s been such a great fit for me.  

Kathryn: You have a successful career teaching at the university level. What inspired you to come up with your new comic book series as a teaching tool for much younger students? It’s great to see you’ve been getting media attention promoting chemistry in a fun way! 

Colleen: The practice of using case studies in higher education has been an effective tool for teaching everything from medicine to law. These case studies are based on ‘real life’ scenarios and are often framed as a mystery to solve.  I have embraced the use of case studies in my chemistry courses for the past few decades. I have used these in graduate level courses in medicinal chemistry and most recently in my 100-level course at The University of Arizona. My students have found that the case studies enriched their understanding of chemical concepts and connect those concepts to everyday life. This led me to ask the questions, “Could we use case studies, framed in an age-appropriate manner, to teach a much younger audience?” and “Can early eager learners master chemical concepts from carefully scaffolded chemistry mysteries?” I wanted to find out, so I began creating a series of chemistry mysteries in a comic book format for students ages 8 to 12.     

Kathryn: How have these young students reacted to the comic series? What do you think are the positives for using creative/visual teaching tools for a subject like chemistry?  

Colleen: The comic book series creates a platform for understanding chemistry concepts in a fun, enjoyable, robust, and memorable way. Readers of this series will eventually be able to thrive in chemistry courses in high school and college. Most importantly, they will be able to understand and write a symphony of chemical reactions to explain the process of not only making goo, but the myriad scientific concepts that our world depends upon. A 5th grade student said they “found [the comic books] were FUN... like that I could read a story, and then I can understand what I learned from a story, and then I could do a math-type-thing. It was new.” 

Kathryn: Have you implemented more creative teaching tools like comic books in your university courses? 

Colleen: I am using the technique of Purposeful Daydreaming as an intervention for creativity anxiety in my 100-level chemistry courses. You can listen to recent podcast where I talk more about this here.  


Colleen Kelley
characters from Kelley's comic book series "Kid's Chemical Solutions"


Kathryn: Despite your own personal interest in teaching chemistry, why is it important for people to know and understand it?  

Colleen: I think a fundamental understanding of chemistry is an important part of being a global citizen.  

Kathryn: Looking back on your graduate school experience at Penn State, are there opportunities you wish you had taken advantage of?  

Colleen: I really can’t think of anything. It was an amazing time in my life! 

Kathryn: Lastly, can you recall your favorite memory as a Penn State Chemistry student? 

Colleen: There’s no one memory that sticks out. I remember fondly being in the lab with my other friends / group members, playing loud music and jamming on our chemistry. Great scientific discussions happened daily along with pranks and a ton of laughter. 


You can listen to Dr. Kelley further discuss her comic books series here

Media Contacts
Kathryn Harlow
Chemistry Communications Coordinator