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January 2021

Head shot of Cathy Murphy, department head, on a gray background 
Greetings from the Department Head
With the first month of 2021 nearly over, all of us in the Department of Chemistry are eagerly putting the challenges of 2020 behind us and embracing a better 2021 with vaccines on the horizon and spring on the way. We wish all of our alumni a happy new year and thank you for the many ways you continue to support our department.

As classes resume this week, our department continues to operate under COVID-19 safety protocols that include frequent testing and other measures that kept the positivity rate low on campus through the fall semester.
We hope for the same through this spring semester that began with the department welcoming a new assistant professor, Nick Jackson. A theoretical chemist, he joins the Center for Theoretical Chemistry in Noyes Laboratory. You can read more about Nick, who was most recently an assistant scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, in this newsletter.

Several of our international first-year graduate students are also arriving this month. And the admissions cycle for our next group of graduate students is underway as the application deadline for the PhD program for Fall 2021 was Dec. 1, 2020. A total of 508 prospective students applied, according to our department's graduate admissions office.  Here's a break-down of those applicants:
  • Female applicants: 201 (40 percent)
  • Male applicants: 307 (60 percent)
  • Domestic applicants: 355 (70 percent)
  • International applicants: 153 (30 percent)
  • Underrepresented minority applicants: 66 (13 percent)

Although departmental events will continue to be virtual for the time being, we are delighted to invite our alumni and friends to attend the department's various lectures and seminars. We encourage you to check out our full calendar of events and our website to read about the latest research going on in the department.

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
 Photo of Prof. Andy Gewirth standing next to graduate student Stephanie Chen in a non-descript spot on campus

New copper electrode design more efficiently converts CO2 into fuel

Andrew Gewirth and graduate student Stephanie Chen have designed a copper electrode that more efficiently converts CO2 to ethylene. Results of their work are published in the journal Natural Catalysis

Considering development of economic sources of electricity, combined with increased interest in CO2-reduction technology, Gewirth said there’s “great potential for commercialization of this process.”
 Head shot of Nobel Laureate Phillip Sharp in a suit jacket and tie with book shelves in the background

The Lessons of a Nobel Laureate

As alumnus Phillip Sharp (PhD, '69, Bloomfield) renews support for the University of Illinois, the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine recalls a key moment in his education as a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry.

He established the Phillip A. Sharp Professorship of Biochemistry in 2007 and recently added to his gift to continue the professorship and increase the support that the named professor will receive.

 A processed, confocal fluorescence image showing human lung differentiation with epithelial cells recovered from aerosol exposure and differentiated into goblet (green), ciliated (orange) and club (red) cells and nuclei stained in blue.

Chemistry research highlighted in 2020 SCS Science Image Challenge

Chemistry at Illinois research images have won both the main category and cover art category in the 2020 Science Image Challenge sponsored by the School of Chemical Sciences.

The school recently announced the results of the annual challenge that features computer-assisted or traditional scientific images of research from the departments of chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering.

 Tabitha Miller sitting on a large tricycle that's used as transportation at Argonne National Laboratory

Tabitha Miller will focus on energy and sustainability as a postdoc at Argonne

Tabitha Miller first experienced Argonne National Laboratory as a graduate student in Professor Allison Fout’s group, but soon she will be joining the science and engineering research center’s Catalysis Group as a postdoctoral researcher.

While finishing her PhD in chemistry early this year, Tabitha found time to share her path to Chemistry at Illinois and explain the two major energy and sustainability research projects she will be involved in while at Argonne.

 Head shot of Nick Jackson in black suit jacket and shirt in front of a gray background

New faculty member Nick Jackson brings multiscale simulation expertise

Earlier this month, Nick Jackson joined the faculty in the Department of Chemistry after his most recent work as an assistant scientist in the Materials Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.
With a bachelor’s in physics, he completed his PhD at Northwestern University, where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and Northwestern Presidential Fellow. He developed a computational technique, electronic coarse graining, while at Argonne.
 Graphic illustration of an orange spherical lens with colored lines representing light coming in from multiple directions

3-D printed microlenses poised to improve computers, communication

Paul Braun, a professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering, led a research team that developed micro-lenses with highly specialized light-focusing abilities.

The study is the first to demonstrate the ability to adjust the direction in which light bends and travels through a lens with sub-micrometer precision.

 Portrait of Martin Burke in a blue shirt, sitting in an office with pictures on the wall behind him

Antifungal drug improves key cystic fibrosis biomarkers in clinical study

A recent clinical study led by Professor Martin Burke shows that a drug used to treat fungal infections improved key biomarkers in lung tissue cultures and in the noses of patients with cystic fibrosis, increasing optimism that a molecular prosthetics approach could provide a new way to treat all people with the disease. Burke explains the previous work that led to this recent study.

 A Zoom meeting photo showing a graduate student leading two day camp students in a chemistry demonstration

Graduate students host "Bonding with Chemistry" Day Camp for Girls

A group of Illinois chemistry graduate students who are members of the American Chemical Society's East Central Illinois Women Chemists Committee created an all-virtual edition of the annual “Bonding with Chemistry” Day Camp for Girls.
More than 30 Champaign and Urbana middle school students conducted “The Flaming Color of Fireworks” and other chemistry demonstrations via Zoom.
 Head shot of Liviu Mirica in a blue suit coat and white shirt in an outdoor setting

Study: Copper isotopes detect protein deposits associated with Alzheimer’s

A proof-of-concept study conducted by chemistry professor Liviu Mirica and colleagues offers new evidence that copper isotopes can be used to detect the amyloid-beta protein deposits that form in the brains of people living with – or at risk of developing – Alzheimer’s disease. The study offers compelling evidence that copper isotopes are a viable, longer-lasting alternative to current diagnostic agents.


Department Awards and Honors

FacultyRohit Bhargava, Paul Braun and Prashant Jain are among the 489 scientists to be awarded the distinction of AAAS Fellow for 2020. Paul Hergenrother has been named a National Academy of Inventors Fellow. The Physical Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society has named Nancy Makri the recipient of the 2021 Award in Theoretical Chemistry.

Students—Senior Omar Alshangiti will continue his academic career at the University of Oxford in England following his selection as a Rhodes Scholar.


Alumni News and Updates

  • Soumitra Athavale (PhD, ’19, Denmark) has finished first in a field of 132 teams in the latest Merck Compound Challenge, a 96-hour global race to identify the best synthetic route for a given small molecule.
  • Marshall Brennan (PhD, ’15, Fout) is the new scientific director at the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening.
  • H.N. Cheng (PhD, ’74, Gutowsky), the 2021 American Chemical Society president, was featured in a cover story in the January 2021 issue of C&EN.
  • Dennis Ray Livesay (PhD, ’00, Subramaniam) has been named the next dean of the College of Computing at Michigan Technological University. It is a named position, and he will be the inaugural Dave House Dean of Computing.
  • Kristin Nuzzio (PhD, ’15, Rienstra), a group leader in Formulation Sciences at PPG, was featured in ACS Industry Matters newsletter. Her team at PPG is currently looking at the chemistry behind how coatings cure.

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


Why I Give

“I was surprised and pleased that the U of I is doing so much COVID 19 testing and very proud that the Department of Chemistry had a hand in developing the saliva-based test used on campus. This is the way a great university leads. Go Illini.” — Bruce Tomkins (MS, ’75; PhD ’78; Natusch)

Share why you give to be featured in a future issue.

Upcoming Events
February 19 - February 20
Virtual event
Since departmental events will be virtual for the time being, we are delighted to invite our alumni and friends to attend the department's various lectures and seminars. We encourage you to check out our full calendar of events at the link above.

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