Chemistry Prof. Thomas Meade doubles as Gettysburg tour guide
February 22, 2017
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When chemistry Prof. Thomas Meade is not conducting research or teaching at Northwestern, he spends his weekends recreating the lives of characters alive during the Civil War with tourists at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Meade joined Northwestern in 2003, focusing on bioinorganic coordination chemistry. In the classroom, he’s always keeping students on the edge of anticipation, said Weinberg junior Eleni Varelas, who is part of the Meade Group. The group is a bioinorganic coordination chemistry laboratory led by Meade.
“His favorite phrase throughout class is, ‘I want you to be on pins and needles,’” she said.
But Meade isn’t just a scientist. He channels his passion for U.S. history, especially regarding Gettysburg, as an amateur tour guide. He started working during the summers he spent with his uncle, who lived in Washington, and said he got hooked on the history of Gettysburg, almost to the point of obsession. Looking back, he said it was almost natural for him to cultivate an interest in American history, as his great-great-great uncle Col. Patrick O’Rorke was killed on Little Round Top, the location of a defensive line during the Battle of Gettysburg.
The three-day Gettysburg tours begin on Fridays. For the rest of the weekend, Meade assigns tourists in his tour a specific soldier who fought in the Civil War battle and leads an interactive narrative of Gettysburg’s history. By Sunday, all the characters have died over the course of the tour. Meade said the interactive format of the tours helps bring the history to life.
Chemistry Prof. Thomas O’Halloran said Meade’s most valuable traits are his unexpected sense of humor, often surprising others with witty quips and random acts.
O’Halloran, who has been to Gettysburg with Meade twice, said Meade continues to inject elements of surprise into his narrative of Gettysburg’s history, just like he does when teaching science at Northwestern.
“There are childlike characteristics that we tend to lose as we mature in our field,” he said. “Tom has kept those and that keeps his teaching and creative approaches very much alive and adapting to the new problems that we face.”
Meade is also an inventor with more than 80 patents and is the founder of three different biotech companies — Clinical Micro Sensors, PreDx and Ohmx. One of his inventions is a handheld electronic bio sensor for DNA and protein detection, which can detect cystic fibrosis instantly with one finger print.
Even when he was younger, Meade said he was interested in science, especially amateur astronomy. He didn’t question if he should go into science — he only questioned which discipline to pursue, he said.
“Why do I love science? It’s is an investigation of the physical world,” Meade said. “Why I do what I do is for discovery. That’s what jazzes me, excites me. It’s the experience of discovery.”