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February 2020

headshot of Professor Martin Gruebele 

Greetings from the Department Head

Winter made a brief appearance with temperatures dipping below zero recently, but indoors, the spring semester is in full swing. As we look forward to warmer months ahead, here are the latest happenings in the Department of Chemistry.

Our graduate recruiting staff has been busy with admissions, finishing up the assessment of roughly 550 applicants and sending offers to 208 of them. Of those offered admission, 56 percent are male, 44 percent female, 82 percent domestic, 18 percent international, and 15 percent URM (under-represented minority). The department is also working toward adding junior faculty: five outstanding young scientists have been invited for second visits.

Alumnus Peixin He (PhD, '85, Faulkner) and Xiaoming Chen, longtime friends of the department, kick-started our PhD3 program with a generous gift to provide fellowships for graduate students in their third year, when they transition from mixed teaching and research to full-time research. I enjoyed seeing them again last semester when they visited campus to receive the College of LAS Dean’s Quadrangle Award.

This month, M. Christina White will be invested as the William H. and Janet G. Lycan Professor in Chemistry. White’s research group continues to develop novel strategies for streamlining the process of complex molecule synthesis. We look forward to celebrating the accomplishments of Professor White and the generosity and vision of the Lycans during the February 25 ceremony at Spurlock Museum.

And next month, we will be in Philadelphia for the spring ACS national meeting. Please join us for our Alumni and Friends Reception at 5 p.m. March 22 at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. We hope to see you there or at another event soon. Until next time.  


Martin Gruebele

Head, Department of Chemistry
James R. Eiszner Chair in Chemistry

 St. Elmo Brady
 St. Elmo Brady

New Chemistry at Illinois YouTube channel features St. Elmo Brady documentary

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s a great time to share a documentary about U. of I. alumnus St. Elmo Brady (PhD, 1916), the first African American in the nation to earn a PhD in chemistry.

"Twenty Whites & One ‘Other’" tells the story of Dr. Brady, who was awarded a scholarship to attend the U. of I. and went on to found chemistry programs at Tougaloo College, Howard University, Fisk University, and Tuskegee University—four Historically Black Colleges and Universities. You can find the video on the Department of Chemistry’s new YouTube channel, "Chemistry at Illinois," where we plan to share more videos about department happenings.

 Head shot of Atul Verma

Alumnus Atul Verma named ACS hero of chemistry

For discovering and developing a new antibiotic in the tetracycline family, Atul K. Verma (PhD, ’96, Rauchfuss) and colleagues from Paratek Pharmaceuticals were recognized by the American Chemical Society with a Heroes of Chemistry Award at the fall 2019 national meeting.

Due to concerns with drug resistant bacteria, Verma and colleagues developed, for the first time in decades, a new antibiotic in the tetracycline family. Applying new reactions resulted in new chemistries that produced seemingly limitless derivatives and led to Omadacycline, which received FDA approval as NUZYRA® in 2018 for the treatment of pneumonia and skin infections.

 Image showing atom of a light-harvesting structure in a photosynthetic bacterium

Organelle simulates nature's conversion of sunlight to chemical energy

Scientists have simulated every atom of a light-harvesting structure in a photosynthetic bacterium that generates energy for the organism. The simulated organelle behaves just like its counterpart in nature, according to the research team that includes University of Illinois chemistry professors Zaida (Zan) Luthey-Schulten, Taras Pogorelov and affiliate faculty member Emad Tajkhorshid. Originally led by U. of I. physics professor Klaus Schulten, the research team continued the work after his death in 2016, constructing a 136 million atom model of the chromatophore, a primitive photosynthetic organelle that produces chemical energy in the form of a molecule known as ATP.

 Head shot of Jeffrey Moore

Jeffrey Moore garners one of the highest honors on campus

A professor of chemistry and of materials science and engineering as well as the director of the Beckman Institute, Jeffrey Moore has been named the Stanley O. Ikenberry Endowed Chair, established in honor of the 14th president of the University of Illinois. Moore "is one of those great individuals who does everything incredibly, incredibly well, from research to teaching to academic leadership,” said Feng Sheng Hu, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.


 Pills and a hand holding glass of water

Researchers find link between migraines and opioid-induced pain

For a decade, researchers have tried to understand how prolonged use of opioids prescribed to treat migraines can increase the frequency and severity of the pain. Chemistry professor Jonathan Sweedler and research faculty members Elena Romanova and Stanislav Rubakhin are part of a team that has discovered the elusive link, a peptide — a small chain of amino acids that can regulate many behaviors and brain signaling pathways.

 Photo of Katzenellenbogen and other researchers who developed new compounds

John Katzenellenbogen helps develop compounds to block cancer, metastasis

Research focusing on a master regulator of cancer growth and metastasis has resulted in the development of new drug compounds that can thwart the pro-cancer activity of FOXM1, a transcription factor that regulates the activity of dozens of genes. The new compounds suppress tumor growth in human cells and in mouse models of several types of human breast cancer. The research, which included U. of I. chemistry professor John Katzenellenbogen, focused on FOXM1, because it is found in higher abundance in cancer cells than in healthy human cells.

 Megan Kats being awarded

Megan Kats recognized as intern at Cabot Microelectronic

Chemistry undergraduate Megan Kats was awarded Cabot Microelectronic's Global Environment, Health & Safety (EHS) Excellence Award at the company’s international headquarters in Aurora, Illinois. She is the first intern to ever receive the recognition.


Department Awards and Honors


Martin D. Burke, whose research focuses on the synthesis and study of small molecules with protein-like functions, has been named the inaugural May and Ving Lee Professor for Chemical Innovation. Scott Denmark, the Reynold C. Fuson Professor of Chemistry, was recently named the 2020 recipient of the Paracelsus Prize by the Swiss Chemical Society for his role as an internationally recognized leader in the development of novel concepts of catalysis, of very useful synthetic methods, and insightful mechanistic investigations in organic chemistry. Paul J. Hergenrother, the Kenneth L. Rinehart Jr. Endowed Chair in Natural Products Chemistry, is one of 443 newly elected Fellows into the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Hergenrother has also been honored with the 43rd Sato Memorial International Award. Shuming Nie was named to the 2019 Highly Cited Researchers list, a global listing of scientists who produced the past decade’s most influential papers, compiled by the Web of Science group, a Clarivate Analytics company. Joaquín Rodríguez-López received the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry Arthur F. Findeis Award for Achievements by a Young Analytical Scientist. David Sarlah has received an Eli Lilly Grantee Award, a two-year, $100,000 unrestricted research grant that will be used in Sarlah’s group to explore several new research directions. And the department’s newest affiliate faculty member, Paul Selvin, a professor of physics, has been awarded the Biophysical Society 2020 Gregorio Weber Award for his ground-breaking work on fluorescence.


Megan Kats, chemistry undergraduate, was awarded Cabot Microelectronic's Global Environment, Health & Safety (EHS) Excellence Award.


Alumni News and Updates

  • Rob Bartolo (PhD, '88, Faulkner), director of global product stewardship at Procter & Gamble, is the 2020 recipient of the American Cleaning Institute (ACI) Elva Walker Spillane Distinguished Service Award for his decades of leadership in the cleaning product supply industry. The honor was presented at the 2020 ACI Annual Meeting & Industry Convention.
  • Atul K. Verma (PhD, '96, Rauchfuss) was recognized at the Fall 2019 ACS National Meeting in San Diego with the ACS Heroes of Chemistry Award

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

Investiture of M. Christina White as the William H. and Janet G. Lycan Professor
Tuesday, February 25, 2020 (Urbana, IL)

Alumni in Industry Lecture (Steven T. Govoni, BS, '84)
Tuesday, March 3, 2020 (Urbana, IL)

ACS Alumni and Friends Reception
Sunday, March 22, 2020 (Philadelphia, PA)

Investiture of Martin Burke as the May and Ving Lee Professor for Chemical Innovation
Tuesday, April 21, 2020 (Urbana, IL)

Department of Chemistry Convocation
Sunday, May 17, 2020 (Urbana, IL)

Chicagoland Alumni and Friends Reception
Thursday, May 28 (Chicago, IL)


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