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June 2020


headshot of Professor Catherine J. Murphy  

Greetings from the Department Head

My first few weeks as head of the Department of Chemistry have been busy, yet exciting, as faculty, postdocs and students are resuming research with COVID-19 safety protocols in place and plans for the delivery of instruction in the fall semester continuing to move forward. Like the rest of the country, we in Champaign-Urbana have experienced mostly peaceful marches for racial and social justice, highlighting the need for the department to continue its efforts toward inclusive excellence. See our website for more details! But I have a few special points I would like to make right now.

First, warm thanks and high praise to Martin Gruebele, whose tireless and cheerful presence as our immediate-past head has provided me with many hours of insight and wise counsel leading up to my tenure that began June 1.

Second, we in the department have been hibernating for weeks in this time of COVID-19 with only essential, virus-related research operating in our chemistry buildings. We have largely escaped the worst of the pandemic, so far, and we are urging everyone to take care and have courage as we slowly emerge from our hibernation to resume university life, which at the core consists of two things: creating new knowledge and educating the next generation of scientific leaders.

Third, let me congratulate our newest alumni, our class of 2020 graduates! What a weird way to end your time at Illinois – classes through screens, no ceremonies, no throwing caps in the air. Nonetheless, we are proud of you and stand by to help you succeed. We are featuring some of our many talented graduates on our Facebook page. I too am an alum (BS, ‘86) and remember thinking that I could not wait to leave Champaign-Urbana after four undergraduate years, with no idea I would return some day and love it.

Fourth, I remind us all that our department is about the same age as the periodic table. It’s been here for 150 years and will be for 150 more! All of you are part of a long and wonderful history; share your stories and victories with us. If there’s one thing I have learned during this pandemic, it’s that science is no fun at all without real interactions with real people.

Watch for information about a virtual event the department is planning for our alumni and friends on July 30: a conversation with department leadership, including myself and former head Martin Gruebele.

I look forward to the time when we can all gather again in person, but until then, take care, and thank you for your support.

Catherine J. Murphy

Head, Department of Chemistry
Larry R. Faulkner Endowed Chair in Chemistry


  Graphic representation of COVID-19 virus

COVID-19: Chemistry faculty lead various projects to protect people and stop the virus

Researchers in the Department of Chemistry are diligently applying their expertise to this worldwide pandemic in a variety of projects, from quickly designing and producing personal protective equipment and other supplies for healthcare workers to developing new testing methods to developing compounds that prevent the virus from entering human cells to discovering universal platforms for vaccines to fight COVID-19 and future coronavirus derived pathogens.

Professors Marty Burke and Yi Lu recently discussed their efforts in detail during a recent virtual event that is available for viewing.


  Head shot of Department Head Cathy Murphy

Department head Cathy Murphy brings unique perspective as alumna and faculty

On June 1, Professor Cathy Murphy officially began her new role as head and became the first woman to lead the department in its 152-year history. A faculty member since 2009, Murphy (BS, '86) is also an alumna.

Since January, she has been working with previous department head Martin Gruebele toward the leadership transition. Murphy recently shared some goals she has for chemistry and her thoughts on becoming the first woman department head. Listen to Murphy discuss becoming a chemist and growing up with her twin sister, Patty Jones, associate director for research at the Beckman Institute: Twin Sister Scientists: Advice for Girls & Women in Engineering & Science.


  Head shot of Professor Philip W. Phillips

Professor Philip W. Phillips elected to American Academy of Arts & Sciences

A chemistry faculty member who's also part of the theoretical condensed matter group in the Department of Physics, Philip W. Phillips has been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences as part of its 2020 class of 276 artists, scholars, scientists and leaders in the public, non-profit and private sectors.

Phillips is one of two University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty members to receive the honor this year. Founded in 1780, the Academy is one of the oldest honor societies in the nation and is committed to recognizing excellence and relying on expertise of its members to advance its projects.


  Head shot of Alumnus Brett McGuire

Alumnus Brett McGuire combines chemistry, astronomy to explore molecules of space

Astrochemist Brett McGuire (BS, ‘09) began exploring space as an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Chemistry at Illinois.

That experience served as a springboard for the current career path of this Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow who will soon leave the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Chemistry as an assistant professor. There, he will continue his space exploration, combining chemistry and astronomy in search of complex molecules far from Earth with exciting plans for his research group.


  Head shot of Douglas Mitchell

Douglas Mitchell selected as John Witt Professor in Chemistry

With key discoveries of natural molecules that have antibiotic properties, Professor Douglas A. Mitchell is a rapidly rising star in chemistry and has been chosen as the John Witt Professor in Chemistry.

A faculty member in the Department of Chemistry since 2009, Mitchell's appointment to this professorship will be effective Aug. 16, 2020, and was reviewed and recommended by the department awards committee comprised of six faculty members. The professorship was established by John Witt (PhD, ‘61, Snyder) and Margaret Witt in 2013.


  Head shot of Samuel Okyem

Get to know graduate student Samuel Okyem

Samuel Okyem recently completed his master's degree in chemistry at Illinois State University and has chosen Illinois to pursue his PhD in chemistry, because of the interdisciplinary and cutting-edge research conducted by the faculty.

His research interests include analytical neurochemistry using advanced chemical tools to understand the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases and the effects of opioids on chronic migraines. Originally from Ghana, in Western Africa, Okyem is a first generation college student who has a passion for research, a desire to become a research scientist and a humanitarian goal that's partly motivated by personal loss.


  Head shot of Professor Liviu Mirica

Liviu Mirica develops compound targeting markers of Alzheimer's disease

When tested in brain cells and in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, a new compound, developed through research led by Professor Liviu Mirica, significantly reduced the number of amyloid plaques in the brain, lessened brain inflammation and diminished other molecular markers of the disease.

Amyloid plaques are a hallmark of the brain disease as is the accumulation of a protein known as p-tau, which is shown in recent studies to collect around the amyloid plaques, increasing the neuroinflammation associated with Alzheimer's.


  Picture of Eunice Wu and her father before she boarded plane for the U.S.

Eunice S. Wu Memorial Scholarship: one woman's path to chemistry at Illinois

More than 60 years ago, Eunice S. Wu left her home in Taiwan for the United States to study chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, following in the footsteps of her father who had graduated from Illinois.

The U of I quickly became a second home to Eunice, who was born in Beijing, China, on May 26, 1937. Her family fled to Taiwan during the civil war that broke out in China immediately after World War II. Eunice graduated from Tunghai University in Taichung in 1959 with a degree in chemistry. Shortly after, she boarded a plane bound for the U.S. and the U of I, where her legacy lives on today in the students who benefit from the scholarship her family established in her memory.


  Head shot of Milan Mrksich

Alumnus Milan Mrksich appointed Northwestern's vice president of research

Northwestern University has appointed alumnus Milan Mrksich (BS, '88) as its vice president of research. Mrksich has appointments in biomedical engineering, chemistry and cell and developmental biology at Northwestern.

The university named Mrksich its interim vice president for research on Oct. 1, 2019, and was officially named to the position on May 14, 2020. While interim, he was leading the university’s research portfolio during the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now planning for the transition of research back to campus.


  Head shot of Professor Renske van der Veen holding various lenses

Renske van der Veen leads development of Ultrafast Electron Microscope

Researchers in the lab of Renske M. van der Veen, professor of chemistry and Materials Research Laboratory scientist, have developed a Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) that can directly visualize electron movement.

This advancement allows scientists to obtain a temporal resolution of a few hundred femtoseconds.The new Ultrafast Electron Microscope (UEM) can be used to observe light-triggered processes inside materials, such as electron transfer reactions, a hallmark of solar energy conversion or photocatalysis.


  Head shots of Mikael Backlund and Nicholas Jackson

Two new faculty members joining department

The department has added two new faculty members, Mikael Backlund and Nicholas Jackson. Backlund will start this fall after completing his post-doctoral work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Nicholas Jackson will join the department in the spring semester from Argonne National Laboratory.


Department Awards and Honors


As part of his promotion to full professor, Prashant Jain was recognized with the Provost’s Campus Distinguished Promotion Award for 2020. He was also named an Alumni Scholar in the Department of Chemistry and is a finalist for a Blavatnik National Award for Young Scientists. Lisa Olshansky has been named a Searle Scholar. David Sarlah has been named an American Cancer Society Research Scholar. The Rochester ACS Section awarded Wilfred van der Donk the Harrison Howe Award for 2020. And Josh Vura-Weis has been named a Helen Corley Petit Scholar by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.


Three senior graduates, Alayna Johnson, Elizabeth McDaniel, and Elizabeth Murphy are part of a select group, Senior 100 Honorary, which recognizes students who are academically successful and involved in campus activities and service.  For exceptional leadership on campus, Elizabeth Murphy was also awarded the Patricia E. Askew Leadership Award for 2020. Junior Namuunzul Otgontseren has been awarded a Beckman Institute Undergraduate Fellowship. Recent PhD graduate Marina Philip has received an American Association of the Advancement of Science Fellowship to write about scientific issues for The Las Vegas Review-Journal. And the American Chemical Society’s Division of Physical Chemistry awarded senior graduate David Qiu a physical chemistry award.


Alumni News and Updates

  • The U of I documentary about St. Elmo Brady (PhD, 1916), the first African-American to earn a PhD in chemistry in the United States, has won a 2020 Telly Award. The project was a collaborative effort among the university’s Video Services, the Department of Chemistry, the School of Chemical Sciences, the University Library and relatives of Brady.
  • Ryan Rafferty, a former postdoctoral researcher in Professor Paul Hergenrother's group and visiting lecturer from 2011 to 2014 in the Department of Chemistry, has been promoted to associate professor at Kansas State University where his research focuses on synthetic organic chemistry, drug discovery, medicinal chemistry, probing the transport of small molecules across complex cellular barriers, and the development of personalized cancer therapeutics. 

We—and other alumni—would love to know what you’ve been up to! Please share your career updates, awards, and other news here.


In Memoriam


Upcoming Events

A Conversation with Chemistry Leadership
featuring new head Cathy Murphy and immediate past head Martin Gruebele
Thursday, July 30, 2020 at 3 p.m. CDT (virtual event)

Save the date for this special alumni and friends event.
Registration information coming soon!

ACS Alumni and Friends Reception *canceled*
Sunday, August 16, 2020 (San Francisco, CA)


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