Melanie O'Neill, MCIC
Simon Fraser University mourns chemistry professor
A special endowment fund has been created to honour the memory of Simon Fraser University chemistry professor Melanie O’Neill, 37, who was found slain in her home by Vancouver Police Department officers the evening of July 26, 2011.
The Melanie O’Neill Chemistry Undergraduate Research Endowment Fund, established by SFU’s chemistry department as well as friends, family and colleagues, will be granted annually to a chemistry undergraduate student who demonstrates research excellence.
Zuo-Guang Ye, chair of the chemistry department, gave a eulogy celebrating O’Neill’s many academic achievements at SFU at a packed memorial service Aug. 8. Born and raised in Halifax, O’Neill attended Dalhousie University for her undergraduate and graduate studies, receiving a PhD in physical organic chemistry in 2001. Afterwards, O’Neill attended California Institute of Technology as an NSERC postdoctoral fellow. After her postdoctoral work, O’Neill was hired by SFU, where she established an active and diverse research program in the interdisciplinary area of biophysical chemistry and chemical biology.
O’Neill, MCIC, was a gifted researcher. In addition to setting up a molecular biology laboratory, O’Neill also established a first-class biophysical chemistry lab where she studied protein and other nucleic acid dynamics. She was considered a pioneer — one of only a handful of scientists around the globe who researched how humans use light to synchronize their metabolic and behavioural patterns with the outside world. Her most recent work attempted to correlate structural dynamics in the RNA editing process with primate evolution.
O’Neill’s work netted accolades; in 2005 she won the Career Investigator Award, Scholar, from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, the provin¬cial support agency for health research in British Columbia. The foundation cited O’Neill’s work in describing the mech¬anism of action of cryptochromes as circadian photoreceptors at the molec¬ular and cellular level. The research enabled an understanding and potential manipulation of biological timing that had the potential to aid in the treat¬ment of sleeping disorders and diseases like depression and cancer.
A devoted instructor and mentor as well as researcher, O’Neill taught lower- and upper-division undergraduate and graduate chemistry courses.
Described as a force of nature who lived life with passion in her professional and personal life, O’Neill especially loved the ocean and spent much of her free time boating, camping, hiking and bird watching. One of her favourite quotations was from 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal, whose own high-minded outlook on life resonated with O’Neill’s contemplative nature. In response to a Pascal quotation, O’Neill penned: “These are some of the most wise words I have known: ‘Beauty is a harmonious relation between some¬thing in our nature and the quality of the object which delights me.’ ”
O’Neill is survived by her brother, Andrew O’Neill, and many aunts and uncles and their families. Donations to the Melanie O’Neill Chemistry Undergraduate Research Endowment Fund can be made online at www.sfu.ca/advancement.
By deadline, no one had been arrested in connection with O’Neill’s murder and police weren’t releasing a cause of death.
Photo Credit: Ian Robertson