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September 2020

headshot of Professor Catherine J. Murphy 

Greetings from the Department Head

A fall semester unlike any other is underway in the Department of Chemistry. We welcomed undergraduate and graduate students back to campus in August with a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction and a comprehensive COVID-19 safety plan that requires all university students, faculty and staff, who are on-campus regularly, to participate in COVID-19 testing twice a week. Our chemistry students and faculty are staying strong and continuing their hard work in the classroom and research labs, and I hope all of you are staying well in these challenging times.

Despite disruptions from the pandemic, many great things are happening in the Department of Chemistry.

At the core of the university’s COVID-19 safety plan is the SHIELD team. Led by chemistry’s Marty Burke, the team also includes fellow Illini chemist Paul Hergenrother. The SHIELD team led the development of the saliva-based test that was implemented on campus in the summer and ramped up to thousands of tests per day last month. The innovative method, along with Marty and Paul, have been in the national spotlight since the FDA granted the test Emergency Use Authorization.

Also, several chemistry faculty members are leading a new national Artificial Intelligence institute on campus that’s funded by a five-year $20 million National Science Foundation grant. You can read more about these exciting developments in this newsletter.

Every year we have the privilege to welcome the next generation of Illini chemists. We continue to make strides with our graduate recruiting efforts as our underrepresented minority (URM) population is up again this year, from last year’s 14.7% to this year’s 18.9%. Here’s a quick look at our newest class of graduate students: We have 58 new PhD students; due to the pandemic, three additional students deferred the start of their program to 2021-2022. Of the 58 enrolled this fall, 38 are men, 20 are women; 47 are domestic, and 11 are international students. For our first-year freshmen, Class of 2024, we have 96 students overall. Of those, 51 are male and 45 female, 75 are domestic students and 21 international. We look forward to working with all of them over the next several years. 

The department also looks forward to the day when we can resume in-person alumni events. Until then, we are planning more virtual events, like the “Conversation with Leadership” on July 30 that allowed myself and previous department head Martin Gruebele to talk about the leadership transition in the department and answer questions from many of you. Thank you to all who were able to attend virtually, and for those who couldn’t, you can find a recording of the event on the department website.

Our next virtual event, Alumni Career Panel: Chemistry and Beyond,” is scheduled for Friday, October 2, and will feature four of our alumni discussing their experience and careers: Tripta Holtz (BS, '10), Yantao Hughes (PhD, ’03), Mark Pytosh (BS, ’86) and Olaseni Sode (PhD, ’12). In the past, this has been an on-campus event primarily for our students and faculty. We're very excited to be offering it virtually this year, so our extended Illini chemist family can join as well.

As always, please stay in touch and stay well.

Catherine J. Murphy (BS, ’86)

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

 Head shot of Erick Carreira

Alumnus Erick Carreira to lead flagship journal of American Chemical Society

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has appointed alumnus Erick Carreira (BS, '83) as editor-in-chief of its flagship journal, the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). Carreira’s appointment, which begins in 2021, follows an extensive public search that garnered more than 100 nominations from the chemistry community.

Born in Cuba and currently based in Switzerland, he will be the first JACS editor-in-chief to live outside of the U.S. and the first Latin American to lead the journal. 

 Graphic representation of COVID-19 virus

COVID-19: Chemistry at Illinois saliva test gains FDA approval and national attention

Pioneering work on a unique saliva-based COVID-19 test by a research team led by Chemistry at Illinois researchers Paul Hergenrother and Martin Burke has received FDA Emergency Use Authorization. The testing methods that enable frequent, rapid testing of thousands of students, faculty and staff on campus has also gained national attention. The test, which will be broadly available to others across the country, puts the University of Illinois on the cutting edge of testing innovation on a national level.    

 Head shot Professor Huimin Zhao

Chemistry faculty lead new NSA funded Artificial Intelligence institute 

Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Huimin Zhao, affiliate faculty member in chemistry, is leading the new National Science Foundation-funded AI Institute for Molecular Discovery, Synthetic Strategy and Manufacturing, also known as the Molecule Maker Lab Institute that includes chemistry's Martin Burke, Scott Denmark, Christina White and affiliate faculty member Charles Schroeder. The NSF five-year $20 million grant creates the institute that will focus on developing new AI-enabled tools to accelerate automated chemical synthesis and advance the discovery and manufacture of novel materials and bioactive compounds.

 Picture of Carolyn Springborn standing next to Bob Springborn

In Memoriam: Carolyn J. Springborn gave generously to Chemistry at Illinois

Chemistry at Illinois has lost a friend and supporter with the passing of Carolyn “Connie” Springborn on July 22, 2020. A prolific artist, life member of the University of Illinois Alumni Association and friend of the Department of Chemistry, Connie Springborn valued education and gave generously to help others continue learning and conducting research.

She and her husband, chemistry alumnus Robert Springborn (BS, ’51), shared the same generous spirit, together creating a legacy in the Department of Chemistry that benefits generations of students.

 Head shot of Professor Philip W. Phillips

Mikael Backlund uses diamond defects for quantum-enhanced nanoscale microscopy

The Department of Chemistry's newest faculty member, Mikael Backlund, will be building and developing advanced optical and opto-magnetic microscopy systems. The physical chemist did his postdoc work in a physics lab in the Division of Atomic and Molecular Physics at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and in the Department of Physics at Harvard University.

Backlund is also a member of the Illinois Quantum Information Science & Technology Center, an interdisciplinary group of experts growing efforts in quantum information science.

 Picture of a student's hand holding a pen while taking a test

Department of Chemistry eliminates GRE scores from admissions process

The Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had already made Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test scores optional for admission to its graduate program, but now the department has decided to eliminate the scores entirely.

The decision means all GRE scores, both General Test scores and subject/chemistry scores, are now eliminated from the admissions process. The GRE subject/chemistry scores have been optional since the Fall 2015 admissions cycle. In the last few years, the GRE General Test scores became optional.

 Head shot of Sindhu Menon

Alumni profile: Sindhu Menon leads development for Asia Pacific BASF

As the head of Technical Development Asia Pacific for BASF in Singapore, alumna Sindhu Easwara Menon (PhD, '09, Leckband) leads the technical service and application development teams for plastics applications for Asia Pacific BASF. She leads teams in creating products and bringing them to the market.

Menon also chairs the "Women in Business" employee resource group that serves as a support system for women joining the company.

 Photo of Xiaoming Chen, on left, standing next to Peixin He

$1 million gift launches PhD4 initiative for fourth-year graduate students 

A new initiative, called the PhD4 program, has been established in the Department of Chemistry to fund fourth-year graduate students. 

Alumnus Peixin He (PhD, ’85, Faulkner) and Xiaoming Chen have made the first donation, a $1 million gift. The long-term goal of the program is to fund all graduate students during their fourth year, providing full fellowships for those who have passed their preliminary exams.

 Picture of the exterior of Noyes Lab

VIDEO: "Conversation with Leadership: Looking Back and Looking Ahead"

The Department of Chemistry hosted a virtual alumni event on July 30, 2020, "Conversation with Leadership: Looking Back and Looking Ahead," that featured new department head Cathy Murphy and previous head Martin Gruebele answering questions about various topics, including the leadership transition. On June 1, Murphy (BS, '86) officially began her tenure as the first woman head in the department's 152-year history.

 Head shot of Alison Wallum

Alison Wallum receives Women In Chemistry Inclusive Leadership Award

A fourth-year graduate student, Alison Wallum's commitment to inclusive excellence led to her nomination for the 2020 Women in Chemistry Inclusive Leadership Award, which she won during the Women in Chemistry (WIC) Retreat on Aug. 22, 2020.

The Women Chemists Committee also sponsored the WIC Inclusive Leadership runner-up award, which was presented during the WIC retreat to Hannah Toru, a third-year physical chemistry graduate student. Wallum and Toru were both nominated twice for the leadership award.


Department Awards and Honors


Yi Lu was named the winner of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Joseph Chatt Award. Nancy Makri received a School of Chemical Sciences Excellence in Teaching award. The Society of Biological Inorganic Chemistry honored Liviu Mirica with an Early Career Award. The Center for Advanced Study on campus appointed Jeffrey Moore a member of its faculty. Instructional faculty member Christian Ray was promoted to teaching associate professor. The American Chemical Society awarded David Sarlah the 2021 A.C. Cope Award, and he also received the Kyoto Rising-Star Lectureship Award. Wilfred van der Donk has been named the winner of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Pedler Award. And Josh Vura-Weis has been promoted to associate professor.


Graduate students Kai Gui, Yiwei Liu and Amanda Smith each received Chemistry Teaching Excellence Fellowships, and Ericka Bruske, Brenna Budaitis and Paul Griffin each received School of Chemical Sciences Excellence in Teaching awards. Graduate student Amanda East was awarded a 2020 Beckman fellowship. Graduate students Kaibo Feng and Mikiko Okumura were finalists for the Reaxys PhD Prize. And four students were honored with 2020 convocation awards: Andria Pace, Reynold C. Fuson Award; Yuan Jia, Carl S. Marvel Award; David Qiu, Worth H. Rodebush Award; and Elizabeth Murphy, John David Barnwell Award. And five chemistry students have been awarded TechnipFMC Scholarships.


Alumni News and Updates

  • Bryan Barton (PhD, '10, Rauchfuss), research group leader at DuPont Electronics and Imaging, was selected to present The Kavli Foundation Emerging Leader in Chemistry Lecture at the American Chemical Society’s Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting & Expo Aug. 17-20. The Kavli Foundation lectureship is awarded to an outstanding early career chemical scientist who is highly regarded by his or her peers for significant contributions to an area of chemistry or a multidisciplinary area of chemistry. At DuPont, Barton is developing new materials for chemical mechanical planarization (CMP). In his lecture, “Innovator’s Guide to Industrial Impact,” he talked about his work at DuPont developing novel polyurethane chemistries for the semiconductor industry and his previous work at The Dow Chemical Company working on a carbon-fiber manufacturing process for the automotive industry.
  • Kwangyeol Lee (PhD, ’97, Shapley) is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Korea University doing work on nanoparticles and their application for a sustainable energy future. Lee is also working as an Associate Editor for CrystEngComm, an online Royal Society of Chemistry scientific journal publishing original research and review articles.    
  • Howard Tigelaar (PhD, ’73, Flygare) is President of Tigelaar Consulting LLC in Allen, Texas. He has written a book, “How Transistor Area Shrank by 1 Million Fold,” that  explains in layman’s terms how CMOS transistors work, describing key inventions and developments in science and engineering that overcame huge obstacles, enabling transistor area to be reduced by over one million fold.

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

Alumni Career Panel: Chemistry and Beyond
featuring UIUC chemistry alumni discussing their experience and careers
Friday, Oct. 2, 2020 at 2 p.m. CDT (virtual event)

Panelists: Tripta Holtz (BS, '10), Yantao Hughes (PhD, '03, van der Donk), Mark Pytosh (BS, '86) and Olaseni Sode (Phd, '12, Hirata)

LAS Impact Week for Alumni and Friends
a week-long virtual event highlighting LAS students, faculty, alumni and others
Monday, Oct. 26 - Friday, Oct. 30, 2020

Save the dates for this special week-long event, and keep an eye on the LAS event page as details are added.


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