Courtesy of Hammes Schiffer

On Oct. 26, Sharon Hammes-Schiffer was appointed as Yale’s newest Sterling Professor of Chemistry, one of the most prestigious honors the University confers.

The Sterling Professorship is awarded to tenured professors who are distinguished leaders in their respective fields. Hammes-Schiffer joined Yale’s Chemistry Department in 2018, where she has since contributed greatly towards advancing the field of theoretical chemical research. 

“This honor is special because it is internal to Yale and covers all fields,” Hammes-Schiffer wrote in an email to the News. “My postdoc advisor, John Tully, is an Emeritus Sterling Professor at Yale, which makes it especially meaningful for me…My goals in terms of teaching are to bring computational chemistry to undergraduate and graduate students in diverse disciplines so that they are able to use the available tools effectively. My goals in terms of research are to continue to develop theories and computational methods that will be useful to the chemistry community and beyond.

Hammes-Schiffer’s colleagues praised her for the achievement, noting her influence in the field of theoretical chemistry. 

Mark Johnson, Arthur T. Kemp professor of chemistry, described Hammes-Schiffer as a “rising star,” at Yale, the United States and maybe around the world. 

John Tully, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, noted her dedication to gaining a deep understanding of various subjects in order to best prepare to do research in theoretical chemistry. According to Tully, Hammes-Schiffer’s research requires her to have a solid understanding of physics, biology, mathematics and computer science.

She’s brilliant in many ways, not only in the depth of understanding but that she can juggle all kinds of things at the same time,” Tully said. “There are lots of aspects to these research programs … She’s on top of all kinds of things at the same time. It’s really remarkable actually, how much she knows.”

Some of Hammes-Schiffer’s most notable work is her research on proton coupled electron transfers, or PCET. This is a very important concept that appears in many biological systems and in energy, like photosynthesis. 

Previously, scientists recognized that protons and electrons had to be coupled, but there was not a theoretical construct for both explaining how the electrons and protons move simultaneously and for putting them in the same equation. Hammes-Schiffer successfully developed a theory for explaining PCET, and the application of this theory has helped many scientists interpret their own experimental data.

“[Hammes-Schiffer] is clearly the world’s leader in the theory of PCET,” Tully said. “Without question, she’s done the most … She’s carved out this area pretty much on our own … She has a large research group and very, very talented people in her group. As a team, they really push this area forward.”

Hammes-Schiffer’s work has also contributed to Yale’s reputation in chemistry. Patrick Holland, professor of chemistry, observed that Hammes-Schiffer’s numerous collaborations have allowed her to make a strong impact worldwide.

Holland credited Hammes-Schiffer for making “Yale known as the world center for thinking about PCET.” He highlighted her propensity to collaborate internationally and the effect this has had on Yale’s “stature” as an institution that is “doing leading science.”

James Mayer, Charlotte Fitch Roberts professor of chemistry, often collaborates with Hammes-Schiffer on research. He explained that her research group generally focuses on theoretical chemistry, while his group works on the experimental chemistry that helps observe those theories.  

Mayer underscored that their most notable collaboration culminated in a paper that was published in the journal Science. He emphasized that Hammes-Schiffer is great at knowing “how to answer a problem” and is “extremely insightful” in choosing problems to work on solutions for.

“She’s obviously incredibly smart and insightful,” said Mayer. “She is just the master of … mak[ing] a contribution to science. She’s so level headed and thoughtful. She’s been a good friend as well as a collaborator.”

Hammes-Schiffer is an inspirational figure for many, regardless of the length of their time at Yale. 

Tianyu Zhu, assistant professor of chemistry at Yale, joined the University only recently. However, he said he had known Hammes-Schiffer to be a “visionary leader” long before his arrival at Yale. According to him, Hammes-Schiffer is able to develop new, important theoretical frameworks for describing chemical reactions that are found to be useful across many scientific disciplines, such as electrochemistry, biology and energy research.

Zhu applauded Hammes-Schiffer’s emphasis on both the theoretical and experimental aspects of chemistry in her research and collaborations. 

“One of her unique abilities that I’ve always admired is her will and her determination to try to integrate theory and experiments,” Zhu said. “Sometimes we focus too much on doing our own theoretical method development but ignore a lot of connections to experiments … She really values the connection between [theory and experiment] … and she has set a really good model for us.”

For some of her colleagues, Hammes-Schiffer’s appointment to the Sterling Professorship did not come as a surprise. 

“It’s hard to come up with an award in theoretical chemistry that Sharon has not won,” said Kurt Zilm, professor of chemistry and chair of the department. “She just regularly piles them up…everyone’s like, ‘what’s the next award she’s gonna win?’ It’s a pleasure to watch. If there’s an award she hasn’t won, she will.”

According to Nilay Hazari, professor of chemistry, since Hammes-Schiffer’s arrival at Yale, both the number of graduate students studying theoretical chemistry and the number of undergraduate students interested in taking her courses have increased.

Moreover, Hammes-Schiffer is known by many as an excellent mentor. She said that her favorite aspect of her job is having the opportunity to interact with students and postdoctoral researchers. 

“My approach to mentoring is to treat each member in my group as an individual and figure out what motivates them and what types of projects inspire them,” Hammes-Schiffer wrote. “I think the key to mentoring is communication in both directions — I need to give feedback on a regular basis, and they need to let me know when they have concerns.”

Hazari commended Hammes-Schiffer for her mentorship abilities and her efforts to make the STEM workforce more diverse. 

According to Hazari, after the Yale Women in Chemistry organization was founded, Hammes-Schiffer made time to attend dinner with all of the members. 

“The reality is there just aren’t very many role models who are women in chemistry at Yale,” Hazari said. “She has always been very generous about [her] time in that regard.”

Furthermore, Hammes-Schiffer serves on panels for women in STEM. There, she answers questions that students and early-career researchers have around topics such as work-life balance and dealing with criticism.

However, Hammes-Schiffer noted that the questions she gets asked are not just specific to women, but can also apply to people of all backgrounds.

“Discussing these issues helps people realize that everyone experiences these issues to some extent,” Hammes-Schiffer wrote. “I think it is important to encourage people of all backgrounds to consider careers in STEM because a diverse workforce is a significant advantage.”

Ultimately, Hammes-Schiffer advises all students to “follow their passions,” without fearing to pursue a path that differs from those of their friends and peers.

Hammes-Schiffer is listed as a co-author on more than 300 peer-reviewed publications. 

SOPHIE WANG
Sophie Wang covers COVID-19 and Yale New-Haven Health. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a freshman in Berkeley College prospectively majoring in statistics & data science and English.