An Experiment in Service: Boston College's Lab Whiz Spreads Good Chemistry

It's no ivory tower where John Boylan does his work. In the famously snooty, detached, nose-in-the-air world of academia, Boylan is one who likes to get his hands dirty. For that, teacher, manager, community leader, and Fields Corner resident Boylan was this year's winner of the Boston College's 2003 Community Service Award.

Boylan is the manager of BC's magnetic resonance laboratory, a post for which he's qualified via a biology degree from St. Louis University, a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Missouri, and some post-doctoral work from Boston University Medical School. Armed with enough schooling to make even the Jesuits blush, Boylan supervises the lab's day-to-day operations and instructs graduate students in the finer points of using whichever unpronounceable instrument their studies require that day.

"John is absolutely super," says Professor Mary F. Roberts, vice chair of BC's Chemistry Department. Boylan is "wonderful with students," Roberts says, adding, "I don't know another staff member in a comparable position who does so much with students."

Boylan says he likes his work in the lab, but it's his service away from the beakers and test tubes that has earned him the recent accolades. Boylan and wife Rebecca sponsor Rosebelle, a 16-year-old girl from Belize whose educational opportunities would be scant without their assistance, Boylan says. Introduced to Rebecca during one of his service trips to Central America with BC's Ignacio Volunteers, Boylan, along with Rebecca, pays her tuition, bankrolls other parts of her education, and is seeking to help her obtain a visa to come to the United States.

It's a different accomplishment than running the Merkert Chemistry Center, and maybe a bigger one.

"My teaching, my lab, mean a lot to me, but this is a party of BC that's really special," Boylan says.

And he helps out closer to home, too. A resident of Fields Corner for the past two years, Boylan says he's volunteered at Rosie's Place since 1998. There he met Rebecca, a Cambridge architect.

When they married last June, at BC's Gasson Hall, the flower girls were seven of his Fields Corner neighbors and in the congregation were friends from Belize who had trekked north for the celebration.

Boylan calls Fields Corner "a remarkable neighborhood - a little rough at times, but remarkable."

At a dinner in his honor last month, Boylan received the award, for which he says he's been nominated several times. "Always the bridesmaid, never the bride," he chuckles. "This year, I guess, they saw it differently."

"Although I don't feel like I deserve any kind of recognition, it's nice to be counted," Boylan says. "I'm pretty humbled by the whole thing, but also very honored."

John Boylan's lab is an orderly place, the petri dishes stacked where they need to be, the machines and instruments whirring when they need to be. The world outside is a bit different, its chemistry not always so well controlled. Every once in a while, it needs a fellow like John Boylan to come down from the ivory tower and mix things up a little bit.