Chemistry professor talks teaching, Genius grant

Not afraid of tricky catalysts and complicated syntheses, Melanie Sanford ’96 GRD ’96 is simplifying reactions and pushing green chemistry in a new direction.

Sanford, a chemistry professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, was awarded one of the 22 2011 MacArthur Fellowships — so-called Genius Awards — Sept. 20 for her work on methods of organic synthesis previously set aside because of their technical difficulty. Her work has been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Organometallics and Tetrahedron, among others. The News interviewed her by phone Monday.

Q What parts of your work were recognized by the award?

A My work is at the interface of organic and inorganic chemistry. That means we use transition metals as catalysts for important organic reactions. The kinds of things we deal with include energy, such as developing new ways to turn carbon dioxide into a useable fuel or taking methane and turning it into a more transportable fuel. Another part of our research focuses on developing quicker and easier routes for the development of pharmaceuticals, so that we can synthesize them more readily and cheaply, which also allows for quicker testing and screening processes.

Q What do you consider your biggest impact on the world to be?

A To be honest, the biggest impact I have — in fact most of the work I do — is teaching undergraduates and supervising graduate students. Training these amazing kids that go out and do amazing things is what I think contributes most. I teach introductory organic chemistry, the regular course in the first semester and an honors version of the course second semester. I’m an enthusiastic person and I try to spend a lot of time showing students how to apply what they learn into making interesting things. For example, we teach a lot of reactions and then apply them to produce target drug structures. I also have 13 or 14 Ph.D students and four undergraduates working in my lab group.

Q Were you surprised to receive a MacArthur Fellowship?

A It was totally out of the blue. I had never even considered it, and you have no idea you are nominated for the award. When they called and said they needed to talk to me alone, I actually thought, is this a prank call? I was actually on my way to the airport for a trip to Scotland, so I got into a taxi and then took the call.

Q The MacArthur Fellowship includes an award of $500,000. What do you hope to do with the money?

A I’m really excited about using the money to take my lab in some new directions. We have projects in a number of important areas; one of them is being able to use really inexpensive catalysts like iron to help modify pharmaceuticals in the place of existing catalysts like palladium or platinum, which are very expensive and toxic. It’s hard to get external grants, so the MacArthur funding will be invaluable.

Q It’s Nobel Prize season and the winner of the chemistry prize will be announced Wednesday morning. Do you ever wonder if your research could be in contention for the Nobel Prize?

A I think my mom thinks about that, but honestly, that’s never going to happen and that’s totally fine. This [MacArthur Fellowship] is the most exciting thing that’ll happen to me. A Nobel Prize could be awarded in the area I work in, but not to me. In fact, [Yale chemistry professor] Bob Crabtree is someone who’s worked in the field who could be in the running one of these years.