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April 2020

headshot of Professor Martin Gruebele 

Greetings from the Department Head

Much has changed on our campus, and in the world, since our last newsletter. I send you warm regards and wishes for good health with this brief update, including how COVID-19 is affecting operations in the Department of Chemistry.

COVID-19 update

In March, following the Governor’s order, the university asked students and most faculty and staff to remain at home for the duration of the semester for the safety of everyone. All events, including commencement ceremonies and alumni and donor-related functions, have been canceled through the end of the semester and into the summer months. But most chemistry department instruction, as well as doctoral defenses, student recruitment and other facets of our mission, are continuing online thanks to the efforts of our faculty members, staff and students, who have quickly adapted to this unprecedented situation.

Demonstrating the ingenuity of our faculty, several are hard at work on projects related to COVID-19. You can read more these projects in this newsletter and about the work of other members of the Illinois research community on the new COVID-19 innovations website. I’m sure some of our alumni are also working on projects related to this novel coronavirus. If so, please email us to share your story.

Department head and faculty updates

I’m pleased to share with you the good news that Professor Catherine J. Murphy will succeed me as head of the Department of Chemistry, effective June 1, when my term is up.

Cathy will be the first woman to lead the department in its 152-year history. An alumna of the University in chemistry (BS, ’86) and biochemistry (BS, ’86), Murphy knows the department from the student perspective and as a member of the faculty, which she joined in August 2009. She holds the Larry R. Faulkner Endowed Chair in Chemistry, is a Center for Advanced Studies Professor, the associate director of the Materials Research Lab and an affiliate of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Micro and Nanotechnology Lab.

In the new academic year, the department will add two new faculty members. This fall, we will welcome Mikael Backlund, who received his PhD in 2015 from Stanford University and is finishing his post-doctoral work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. And in January, Nicholas Jackson will join us from Argonne National Laboratory. He received his PhD in theoretical and computational chemistry in 2016 from Northwestern University.

Looking ahead to the summer months and beyond, there’s obviously uncertainty about when students, faculty and staff can return to campus as this public health emergency continues to evolve, but I am confident the Department of Chemistry will effectively navigate these challenges.

Thank you for your continuing support, and I look forward to when we can come together again.


Martin Gruebele

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

 Bioenginering student Kyle Ritchie demonstrates the face shield

Chemistry researchers working on multiple projects to combat COVID-19

The response by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to the COVID-19 pandemic has been swift, collaborative and multi-faceted with ongoing projects across campus, including faculty members and researchers in the Department of Chemistry where efforts range from developing novel virus detection methods to assisting in the design of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.


 Head shot of Paul Hergenrother

Paul Hergenrother appointed deputy director of Cancer Center at Illinois

A pioneer in anticancer drug innovation, Paul J. Hergenrother, the Kenneth L. Rinehart Endowed Chair in Natural Products Chemistry and professor of chemistry, was appointed deputy director of the Cancer Center at Illinois in early March.

One of the most distinguished cancer researchers on campus, Hergenrother has been an integral part of the center, co-leading the center's research program, Cancer Discovery Platforms Across the Engineering-Biology Continuum.

 Head shot of Jeanne Hankett

Alumna creates foundation to support cancer research

Motivated by the loss of her father and others to cancer, alumna Jeanne Hankett (BS, '10) has founded the Richard G. Hankett Memorial Grant (RGHG) Foundation to support and advance multi-disciplinary academic cancer research with an emphasis on raising awareness of infection-induced cancers.

Launched in late 2019 after two years of planning, the foundation is dedicated to supporting and advancing excellent multidisciplinary academic cancer research through crowdfunding.


 Head shot of Jeffrey Moore

Getting to know graduate students Nick Pino, Safiyah Muhammad

Like most graduate students working toward doctoral degrees, Nick Pino and Safiyah Muhammad keep very busy, but both make time to be involved with the Department of Chemistry's Diversity Committee that leads efforts to recruit underrepresented minorities and women graduate students, post doctorates and faculty members.

 Image illustration of computation of human cell

Researchers develop the most complete computational model of a human cell

Chemistry professors Martin Gruebele and Zaida ("Zan") Luthey-Schulten were part of a research team that has developed the first computational model of a human cell and simulated its behavior for 15 minutes, the longest for such a complex biological system.

The team’s new computational platform is available to any researcher, allowing them to set up a virtual human cell and change chemical reactions and geometries to observe cellular processes in real time.

 Head shot of Jay Wackerly

Alumni collaborate on research that could lead to targeted drug delivery

Alumnus Jay Wackerly (PhD, ’08, Moore), an associate professor of chemistry at Central College in Iowa, has created a new molecule that has shown an ability to grab onto specifically-targeted small molecules.

He was assisted in his research by fellow alumnus Scott Shaw (PhD, ‘08, Gewirth), an associate professor at the University of Iowa. They hope to build on this research by taking these small molecules and delivering them to a desired location, a process known as molecular transport.

 Headshot of Elizabeth Murphy

Survey shows 91 percent of chemistry graduates secure their first destination

Data just released in March from the most recent annual Illini Success survey shows that 91 percent of those who graduated with a bachelor's degree from the Department of Chemistry between August 2018 and May 2019 secured their first destination.

Half of those graduates, like current graduating senior Elizabeth Murphy (pictured), are continuing their education, and another 41 percent entered the workforce. And 71 percent of those in the workforce are working in Illinois. Read more

 Head shot of Professor Scott Denmark and Soumitra Athavale

Team of researchers demystify the mysterious Soai Reaction

For 25 years, the Soai Reaction has endured as one of the most mysterious reactions in organic chemistry, but now, Reynold C. Fuson Professor of Chemistry Scott Denmark and graduate student Soumitra Athavale have shed new light on this transformation that has attracted the attention of scientists for decades.

Their work reveals the important role of an enzyme-like mechanism that allows tiny chiral imbalances to create single enantiomer products from non-chiral starting materials.


Department Awards and Honors


Martin Gruebele, the James R. Eiszner Endowed Chair in Chemistry, received the Protein Society's Hans Neurath Award for 2020, which honors individuals who have made a recent contribution of exceptional merit to basic protein research. Michael Koerner was recognized by the Office of the Chancellor for the positive impact he has had on recent graduates, who mentioned him in the campus-wide Chancellor’s Senior Survey. Catherine J. Murphy received the ACS Award in Inorganic Chemistry for pioneering research on the synthesis and properties of gold nanocrystals. Stephen G. Sligar received the Protein Society's Christian B. Anfinsen Award for 2020, which recognizes technological achievement or significant methodological advances in the field of protein science.


Graduate students Andria Lauren Pace, Maxwell George Tetrick, John Henry Burke, Sophia McClain, Jazmin Emilia Aguilar-Romero and undergraduate students Alayna Marie Johnson and Elizabeth Ann Murphy were awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships, with Francis Alcorn, Catharine Brady, Gabriela Ibarra, Alyssa DeLucia, Laura Daigh and Kelly Gullet receiving honorable mention. Graduate student Dinumol Devasia received the TechnipFMC Fellowship for her research focusing on the spectroscopic investigation of carbon dioxide reduction reaction. And undergraduate Sriyankari Chitti was one of 396 students nationwide and one of two from the University who were awarded Barry M. Goldwater scholarships, which encourage the development of highly qualified scientists and other professionals who intend to pursue their doctorates. 

Postdoctoral Researchers

Saadia Chaudhry is one of five 2020 postdoctoral fellows at The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.


Alumni News and Updates

  • Steven Govoni (BS, ‘88), the vice president of research, development and engineering at Nalco Water, an Ecolab Company, delivered the Alumni in Industry Lecture to students and faculty in the Department of Chemistry in early March. He discussed how his company helps its customers conserve vital resources, like water, and explained the critical role chemistry plays in finding solutions for their customers.
  • Milan Mrksich (BS, ‘89) has been named Northwestern University’s interim vice president for research. Mrksich is a leader in developing surface chemistries for a range of applications in the life sciences. He has appointments in the departments of biomedical engineering, chemistry and cell and developmental biology, is a founding director of the Center for Synthetic Biology and also serves as a member of President Morton Schapiro’s senior staff.

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

I Love Illinois Week
April 20-24, 2020

Webcast: New Approaches to Solving the Plastics Dilemma
Guest Speaker: Prof. Jeffrey S. Moore, Stanley O. Ikenberry Endowed Chair and Director, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sunday, April 26, 2020

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


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