Sylvia McLain was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee.  She received her B.S. in Zoology from the University of Tennessee in 1994.  She has taught English in the People's Republic of China at Hubei Teachers College in Wuhan, Hubei, PRC, worked for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Service as a fisheries technician and as a laboratory research associate in population genetics for Dr. Gary McCracken in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Tennessee. She earned a Master's Degree via the Lyndhurst program in Science Education from the University of Tennessee in 1999.  After spending a year teaching high school, Sylvia decided to return to graduate school in chemistry.  After a brief period working for Dr. G.K. Schweitzer, she began work in the Turner Group in 2000.

She won several awards during her doctoral work, including the SAACS teaching assistant award (2000), a first year graduate student award (2001), and 
the Gleb Mamantov Chemistry Scholar award for excellence in research (2002).

She was a graduate researcher on the GLAD diffractometer at IPNS and was funded through the ANL Laboratory Graduate Student Scheme, co-supervised by Dr. J. F. C. Turner and Dr. C. J. Benmore.
She has also been invited to speak to DOE for the biannual assessment of ANL and has instructed graduate students during the Neutron and X-ray school at ANL.

Her doctoral work was concerned with the determination of liquid structures of superacids and superacidic solutions, using neutron and X-ray diffraction, and solid state fluoride chemistry.

In June 2004, she was awarded an international post-doctoral fellowship funded by NSF, to undertake 2 years research at the ISIS neutron spallation source in the UK and is currently an academic visitor in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford.

Her full CV can be found here

  Experimental investigations of liquid structures have been performed in antiquity