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11/22/2011 08:00:00

Caltech Alumnus Revisits Traditional Methods in Chemistry to Address Modern Problems

Award-winning film director and Caltech alum Frank Capra (BS '18) once said, "A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something." In October, the MacArthur Foundation clearly had a hunch about another alumnus, organic chemist Melanie Sanford (PhD '01), who received one of their prestigious MacArthur Fellowships, an award that provides unrestricted funds to "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." The awards are not given for past accomplishment, but rather are considered to be an investment in a person's potential, with the hope that recipients will use the money in a way that will benefit human society.

Sanford, 36, is currently the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry at the University of Michigan, where she has been on the faculty since 2003. She credits her graduate studies at Caltech for helping jumpstart her career in chemistry.

"The opportunity to work with a world-class group of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and faculty on problems at the cutting edge of science was incredibly exciting, scientifically," says Sanford, who also enjoyed frequent and competitive foosball tournaments at the Athenaeum in her downtime at Caltech.

Her graduate mentor was Nobel laureate Bob Grubbs, Atkins Professor of Chemistry. Grubbs, Sanford says, gave her the freedom and opportunities to explore and develop her scientific interests—even when they were obscure—and to learn how to think critically about problems in chemistry. In addition, she says, Caltech provided Sanford with a lot of training in grant and paper writing—two of the most important things she now does as a faculty member—as well as a strong alumni network.

"Literally hundreds of people who were students or post-docs with me at Caltech are now in various positions in industry and academia and have been an amazing peer group as I advance through my career," says Sanford.

Sanford first became interested in chemistry at Classical High School in Providence, RI, when an AP chemistry teacher instilled her with a love for the subject. That, coupled with a great freshman organic chemistry course at Yale, solidified her interested in pursuing chemistry as a career.

Now, she is working to develop more sustainable methods of making chemicals and fuels. By revisiting older techniques that have been set aside by many current chemists because of their difficulty, Sanford has developed methods of organic synthesis that often decrease the number of reaction steps necessary while increasing the yield of the desired molecule. This lessens the environmental impact of the manufacturing process of chemicals. Plus, as a faculty member, she is teaching the next generation of chemists greener approaches to the field.

"I have an absolutely phenomenal group of undergrads, graduate students, and post-docs that work with me," she says. "Watching these students 'grow up' as scientists and ultimately go out into the world to do great things is definitely the best part of this job."

Sanford plans to use the fellowship money—$500,000 over five years—to move her research in new directions.

"One problem of particular interest is the possibility of using inexpensive and earth-abundant metals like iron, cobalt, nickel, and copper to catalyze reactions that typically require much more expensive and rare metal catalysts (like palladium, platinum, or rhodium)," she says. Sanford also plans to expand on current collaborations focused on developing novel battery technologies.

"Chemistry is a central science to solving some of the most important problems of our time, like finding renewable sources of energy, curing disease, limiting the generation of pollution that is poisoning our planet, and achieving sustainable growth in both the developed and developing world," says Sanford, who is also a research partner at the Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis, based at the University of Washington. "The possibility of being able to have even a small impact in addressing these problems inspires me every day."  

Written by Katie Neith